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Arguably, today’s movie audiences are looking for something a bit fresher than what Hollywood is serving. Sliding ticket sales are an indication that the movie-going public is sick of leftovers. Recently, Slate ran an article explaining why it is that Hollywood is creating less and less original fare:

In Hollywood, originality is anything but a virtue. Paramount rejected a recent project that had attached stars, an approved script, and a bankable director by telling the producer, “It’s a terrific idea; too bad it has not been made into a movie already or we could have done the remake.”

Why the reluctance to do something new? Making a movie is traditionally a high-cost, high-risk venture, so the suits at the studios have to hedge their bets by tapping into already existing markets. Hence, filling the mega-plexes are the remakes of TV series, comic book adaptations, crossovers from video games, and of course, the sequels. From a business perspective, it’s a great idea. From a creativity standpoint, there are fewer worse.

And therein lies the fundamental dichotomy that overlays everything Hollywood makes. Movies are creative endeavors and business ventures. Success in Hollywood is measured by two different yardsticks: financial return, and critical acclaim (which measures more than just originality, but is good enough for our purposes here.) It seems intuitive that if you wish to make critically-acclaimed original movies, you first have to make money. And in order to really make money, you do a blockbuster sequel, remake, spin-off, etc. According to the Slate article, here’s why:

The key to a movie’s [financial] success is the level of awareness that exists for the project well in advance of the advertising blitz that takes place in the week or so preceding the actual release date.

In this day and age of multiple distractions, people are only willing to cough up the $8+ for a flick when they already have some kind of positive association with it. There are plenty of other things to do with my time and money than to chance them on a movie I’ve never even heard of. And this is why, “I liked the book,” or “DUD3 TAHT WAS DA COLEST VIEDO GME 3VER!1!!” translate into greenlit projects.

The standard studio’s business model has been to create one or two “tent pole” movies, and maybe 10-20 other films a year. Those other films will most likely lose money, or in the best case, will make a meager profit during their theatrical runs. The studios hope that their tent poles can make enough of a profit to cover the losses from the rest, and they give them the bigger budgets. Creating a tent-pole is like putting all your money on number 13 at a Vegas roulette table. If you win, you might be able to pull down a healthy reward, but you’re putting all your eggs into one basket. If you lose, you lose it all. And like in Vegas, the odds are not in your favor. So, if you’re a Hollywood suit, evening the odds involves re-hashing other material.

Allow me the hubris of recommending other methods for shortening the odds.

1) Develop a Reputation as an Original Storyteller
I mentioned earlier that having a reputation for good storytelling will go a long way towards building you an audience for future films. Reputation is why people have lower hesitation about seeing a Spielberg film; he hasn’t let them down too many times in the past. This may seem to be more of a tip for individual filmmakers, but it works in the case of studios as well: eg. Pixar, or Disney in the 90’s.

In business circles, this in known as ‘branding‘ (Wikipedia).

It (branding) also encompasses the set of expectations associated with a product or service which typically arise in the minds of people.

There are no real ‘brands’ in Hollywood simply because other than their logos, there is nothing that differentiates the studios from one another. “In the minds of the people,” the current Hollywood studios are all the same. They all make schlock, and they all produce an occasional blockbuster. Developing a brand in Hollywood as the only game in town that consistently produces great stories will do more for your future films than any other single thing you can do. (Though you can never underestimate the importance of a cool logo.)

2) Learn How to Use New Media for Marketing
Like the Slate article said, positive pre-release buzz is the most important thing to the financial success of a movie. The Internet has the potential to spread word faster than any other medium now in place. When something catches fire on the Internet, it spreads fast. Corporate blogs have become just another fad, but if well done, they can be a valuable resource. If the studio publishes something genuinely interesting, the rest of the blogging community will pick up on it. Make Word-of-Mouse work for you. RSS feeds put your latest news in front of people. Podcasts, or vidcasts of works-in-progress or behind-the-scenes stuff can generate interest. (eg, Peter Jackson’s weekly King Kong video diary). Don’t be patronizing, and don’t go around beating your chest. Consumers using this technology are way to savvy for that; bad vibes spread just as fast on the net as good ones. This ain’t your grandmother’s marketing campaign.

3) Control Your Budget: Go Digital
1.6 Million dollars. That’s how much it cost Steven Soderbergh to tape his last movie, Bubble. I’m fairly certain that there were previously plenty of suits who would have told you that shooting a feature on that kind of budget was impossible. Roger Ebert called it a masterpiece. Soderbergh shot Bubble using the same cameras Lucas used to capture the live-action elements of the last Star Wars episode. While Star Wars may not have been a masterpiece, and Bubble wasn’t even close to a blockbuster, together both films prove the viability and flexibility of digital movie making.

Now let’s look at Sin City. Both critically acclaimed, and financially successful. Here is a movie that proves that you don’t have to spend $150 million on the off chance that you’ll make it back. Rodriguez only required $40 million to bring this comic book to the screen. And this wasn’t just some actor-driven fluff piece. There literally isn’t a single frame in Sin City that didn’t require some sort of special-effects post-prodution work. The small budget is directly attributable to Rodriguez’s facility with digital film making tools. (For the record, Rodriguez has never needed more that $40 million to create a movie.) The box-office gross for Sin City’s first weekend was nearly $30 million. I smell profit here.

And even though this movie crosses my premise that Hollywood should write original material (the exception to make the rule), Sin City was already so fresh and compelling that honestly it’d be hard to screw up. Not that the suits couldn’t have done so. Many great stories have been mangled by bureaucracy, and Frank Miller (the creator of Sin City) would be the first to tell you so. (Miller stated that he would never let Hollywood make adaptations of his comics after constant studio interference during the scriptwriting for the Robocop franchise.) But Rodriguez’s commitment to the original Sin City material was so strong that he wouldn’t proceed without Miller’s blessing. Miller even co-directed the film. So strong was Rodriguez’s commitment to Sin City that he resigned from the Director’s Guild in order to allow Miller a co-directing credit.

Really Long Aside; yet another plug for good storytelling

Rodriguez is recognized as a proven storyteller (see number 1 above), and all the A-list talent he enlisted agreed to work for much less than they could’ve demanded. Bruce Willis alone could have cost the production at least $5 million (the amount he was paid to star in Die Hard in 1988). Willis’s current asking price is reportedly around $25 million. Actors recognize good material, and they’ll sacrifice their astronomical salaries to work with proven storytellers and to bring a great film to life.

4) Start the PR early
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a trailer on TV for some movie opening ‘this weekend’ that I’d never heard of. Even if the trailer is really good, you have virtually no chance of getting me to change my plans. I’ve got a life, and I’m not going to change it just because you flashed hordes scantily clad women and fiery explosions on my little TV screen for 30 seconds. Which leads me to the next point…

5) Enough with crappy trailers
I hate to sound like a Pixar fanboy, but I think they serve as excellent examples of how to run a movie business. Take the Monsters Inc. trailers for example. The teaser, makes me laugh without really giving me any idea what the movie is about, and that one does a great job of quickly explaining the gist of the story without giving away too much. And the teaser for The Incredibles had me rolling in the aisles. “Maybe just a salad!” HA!

Contrast those with the majority of trailers made these days. Just one example will suffice. Women and violence. What about this trailer really makes me want to go out and see this movie? I’ve seen women, and I’ve seen explosions. Tell me an interesting story.

6) Take Advantage of The Long Tail
Economically, what the long tail means, is that you don’t have to appeal to the lowest common denominator anymore. With the advent of recommendation engines, people are finding things they’re interested in that they otherwise would never have even heard of. They spend their money on these things. DVD’s are perfect for this kind of market, digital downloads even more so. Apple’s iTunes music store has proved the viability of downloadable media; people will pay for content if the price is right and delivery is convenient. If it’s available, and it’s good, it will find its audience. Don’t be afraid of niches.

Winding it all up now
To put it succinctly, there is more than just one way hedge your bets. The prevailing method obviously isn’t putting butts in the seats. I would hope that some mogul out there might stick his neck out and try something new. And even though I’m no mogul, that’s my as well. Hopefully you’ll see a really cool Saturdayplace logo in front of a film the near future.

Kindred Articles:
It’s happening in the video game world too. (VFX World, registration required)
The Man Who Shot Sin City(Wired Magazine)


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