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Why the Bad Men Can Never Stop

Ron Meyer

Well. Wow.

I say this because io9 pointed me to the comments made by Universal’s head burrito, Ron Meyer. If you have any interest in how Hollywood functions (or dysfunctions), then you should probably read both. Because then you can hear the full context for “Benicio del Toro stunk” (re: The Wolfman), the craptastic nature of stuff like Land of the Lost and him taking the audience to task for Scott Pilgrim.

I wanted to take a second to come at both of these articles from a slightly different angle, since an annual two-part panel we have at DragonCon every year is “Make the Bad Men Stop,” where we address Hollywood’s past, present and future atrocities.

io9 is correct in that Meyer (and thus Universal) “wants movies that are better than Cowboys and Aliens, but not as good as A Beautiful Mind. Not mediocre, just not great.” But they list Universal passing on the $200M+ Mountains of Madness and Dark Tower as examples of them being too risk averse. But here’s the thing: Meyer is right.

[ad#longpost]With Madness, it had two huge strikes against it. One, as I understand it, Guillermo Del Toro was adamant about it being an R-rated film. Set aside for the moment whether you think a PG-13 Madness would be palatable or not, just consider this: if we look at the all-time domestic box office for R-rated films, how many have made over $200M? Ten. Of those, how many were horror films? One. The Exorcist. Agreed, this is a domestic-only chart and it’s not in adjusted dollars. But still–considering Hollywood, as far as box office cred goes–seems to only give a shit about domestic box office, I think it’s worth poking at. (And, frankly, I don’t think Hollywood, for the most part, knows to adjust the dollars.)

Sidebar: and honestly, I don’t know what Del Toro was thinking. Have you seen what you can get away with in a PG-13 film these days? Shoot for R, release it to cinemas PG-13, release it to DVD and Blu-Ray in an “unrated special edition.” How hard is that?

Second strike: The Serenity Law. “If fandom was enough to make money at the box office, then Serenity 2 would have already come and gone.” Ask yourself this–and answer honestly: if Marvel had marketed Iron Man strictly to comic book audiences, would it have made as much money as it did? The answer is no. Which is why Scott Pilgrim did so poorly–they didn’t properly market it as the retrotastic geek-infused comedy that transcended that (albeit weird and mutated) pigeon hole. And Meyer is correct in that the film deserved better. Do you actually see Madness appealing to your neighbor who’s never heard of Lovecraft? Because I don’t.

As for Dark Tower, again, look at the list of Stephen King films. How many have made over $200M domestically? None. $100M? One. The Green Mile. Regardless, that project is better off at HBO.

At the Mountains of Madness book cover
This cover screams many things. Mass Appeal is not one of them.

io9 is dead right in that a downward spiral happens. As we get less and less likely to go to the cinema–because frankly, going to the cinema sucks–more films are going to be geared towards the narrow definition of “what works” in the eyes of the studios. If we look at the 2011 returns, that means: known franchises, animation and comedies. The only two things that pop out of the top 20 and don’t fit? The Help, which was well marketed, and Super 8, which was also well marketed and had the Abrams/Spielberg one-two punch. io9 is also right in that the studios are going to be less and less likely to give us an immersive film experience a la Avatar, which just costs too much money and there aren’t too many Camerons in the world who Just Know that what they’re going to do is going to work.

However. Call me crazy and/or optimistic (one of which I seldom get called) but here’s what I see happening. A transition to independent filmmakers making gradually larger films until you eventually get to the point that Avatar is within their grasp. If you look at recent indie genre films Monsters and The Dead, they gave you an immersive experience: the environment simply wasn’t CG. In the case of Monsters, you go to Latin America and shoot the thing guerilla style using mostly what you find. To most audiences, a jungle is a jungle is an exotic locale. Throw your CG FX on top of that and you’re done. With Dead, you go to the barren parts of Africa and immerse us in a big bunch of nothing–which is why the film works so well. Hell, even look at Tarsem and The Fall…you can find plenty of wild locations on Earth that you would think were fake.

So I think that if you want immersive, they’ll go to locations first and then CG more and more as technology and budget permits it. Honestly, go see Monsters if you want to see what budget CG looks like. Stunning.

Do we still need studios to provide us with the known franchises, animation and comedies? Yes, for the most part. And if those are the only niches that will work for them, so be it. If they don’t have enough sense to take the $38 million they spent on The Thing remake and instead give $5 million to seven different directors who are looking to make the next (budget-to-profit, if nothing else) Paranormal Activity, then they deserve to get passed up. I encourage anybody who has a good movie idea to get on Kickstarter and try and get it made. Because whatever the studios can’t figure out how to make profitable–we still want it–and whoever fills those niches in a smart way will win.


  • Widge,
    Do you think that Hollywood is at all cyclical? I tend to think so, and with that thought they are in a period of “contraction” where they stop the risk taking for a period of time and then in 3-4-9 however many years, they are comfortable with a project that isn’t easy and they can take a stab at and it makes a metric shit-ton of cash, then the cycle reverses itself and we’re back to junk-tastic movies until Hollyweird pulls back again…just my 2 cents.

  • I think they are, it’s more Studio A is successful at doing Thing A, so that emboldens Studio B to try Thing B. And then once there’s success from a few of these instances, the door is open to whoever. Case in point: the zombie renaissance occurred after the success of Shaun of the Dead and 28 Days Later. Before that, you have to look to 1985 to find the end of the zombie wave. But once it was proven zombie movies could make money again, then everybody and his brother Bob started making them. So yes, if a couple of studios took chances and won–we’d see it become safer to do chance-y films. And in the past, yes, that might happen. But with the ever diminishing returns on domestic box office–due to a number of factors that we’ve talked about, everything from quality of service to price point–I think they are in a death spiral. It’s whoever decides to get out of that ever-shrinking game and start a new game (like Meyer was attempting with the Tower Heist VOD deal) that will win.

    What I would absolutely freaking love is a site that gave me one stop shopping for a film’s total income: domestic, international, merchandising, home video sales, streaming sales, etc. Then you get a complete picture. Without that, you get a skewed picture.

    But no, it’s a good point. I just don’t see it happening easily in this environment. Not for big dollars.

  • Sidebar: and honestly, I don’t know what Del Toro was thinking. Have you seen what you can get away with in a PG-13 film these days? Shoot for R, release it to cinemas PG-13, release it to DVD and Blu-Ray in an “unrated special edition.” How hard is that?

    This whole article, but this in particular, solidifies something I’ve always thought: Let’s start a media consulting company and make better media.

    We already have a name for it.