Wednesday, March 2, 2011

THEIR FIRST QUESTION IS NOT "WILL IT BE GOOD?" BUT "CAN IT BE SOLD?" Writing for GQ, Mark Harris laments Hollywood's cautious attitude in an essay titled "The Day The Movies Died." Two paragraphs to whet your interest:

[L]et's look ahead to what's on the menu for this year: four adaptations of comic books. One prequel to an adaptation of a comic book. One sequel to a sequel to a movie based on a toy. One sequel to a sequel to a sequel to a movie based on an amusement-park ride. One prequel to a remake. Two sequels to cartoons. One sequel to a comedy. An adaptation of a children's book. An adaptation of a Saturday-morning cartoon. One sequel with a 4 in the title. Two sequels with a 5 in the title. One sequel that, if it were inclined to use numbers, would have to have a 7 1/2 in the title.

And no Inception. Now, to be fair, in modern Hollywood, it usually takes two years, not one, for an idea to make its way through the alimentary canal of the system and onto multiplex screens, so we should really be looking at summer 2012 to see the fruit of Nolan's success. So here's what's on tap two summers from now: an adaptation of a comic book. A reboot of an adaptation of a comic book. A sequel to a sequel to an adaptation of a comic book. A sequel to a reboot of an adaptation of a TV show. A sequel to a sequel to a reboot of an adaptation of a comic book. A sequel to a cartoon. A sequel to a sequel to a cartoon. A sequel to a sequel to a sequel to a cartoon. A sequel to a sequel to a sequel to a sequel to a movie based on a young-adult novel. And soon after: Stretch Armstrong. You remember Stretch Armstrong, right? That rubberized doll you could stretch and then stretch again, at least until the sludge inside the doll would dry up and he would become Osteoporosis Armstrong? A toy that offered less narrative interest than bingo?
Read the whole thing.


  1. Joseph Finn8:58 AM

    "four adaptations of comic books."

    And how many adaptations of novels, Mr. Harris? Remember, it's not great literature and it's for the kiddies if it has the funny pictures.

    I agree with a decent amount of the article, but his snide tone there just rubbed me the wrong way.

  2. One problem I have is the idea that all comic book/graphic novel-based films are the same.  "Scott Pilgrim," "Road To Perdition," "Watchmen," and "Iron Man" were all based on comic books or graphic novels, and between those four, there's an awful lot of different tones and styles.  Yes--there are awful comic book movies (right now, I'm less than optimistic about "Green Lantern," and still have some substantial concerns about "Thor"), but there are also plenty of god-awful midbrow adult dramas of the sort Harris complains don't get made anymore (pretty much anything based on a Nicholas Sparks novel with the possible exception of "The Notebook," for instance).  Judge the movie on its own merits, not based on what the source material is.

  3. Joseph J. Finn9:17 AM

    I think Matt and I are on the same 9 panel grid here.

  4. I disagreed with his tone for a while, but about the fifth movie in, I'll admit, he has a point.

    Any help listing the movies he's referring to? (to which he's referring?)

  5. Does Back to the Future get made today?  Starring either Eric Stoltz or Michael J Fox -- neither of whom has a film track record -- very tech-heavy and expensive, based on an original concept, though plenty of room for product placement.

  6. He lists them in the article:

    2011: Captain America, Cowboys & Aliens, Green Lantern, and Thor; X-Men: First Class; Transformers 3; Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides; Rise of the Apes; Cars 2 and Kung Fu Panda 2; The Hangover Part II; Winnie the Pooh; The Smurfs in 3D; Spy Kids 4; Fast Five and Final Destination 5; Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2.

    2012: The Avengers; Spider-Man (3D); Men in Black 3 (3D); Star Trek untitled; Batman 3; Monsters, Inc. 2; Madagascar 3; Ice Age: Continental Drift in 3D; The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 2.

  7. Yes.  Think of most of the DJ Caruso films that have Bay/Spielberg involvement--"Eagle Eye," "Disturbia," "I am Number Four."  All (save the last) based on original concepts, none with terribly starry casts, all (save "Disturbia") decent effects budgets.  (Perhaps an even better example?  "Sucker Punch," which is wholly original, with the biggest names in the cast being Vanessa Hudgens and Jon Hamm, and looks like it was insanely expensive.)

  8. Ramar9:42 AM

    <span>A Spielberg-backed SF film with a TV star in the lead?  Sounds kind of like "Super 8."</span>

  9. Hobart10:21 AM

    It was interesting to read the pessismism of this against the relative optimism coming from William Goldman and Bill Simmons on yesterday's B.S. Report.  They kapt talking about the potential for a resurgence of good, original movies doing solid business.

  10. isaac_spaceman12:00 PM

    We've made a lot of great movies out of what is either not-great literature or literature outside of what the NYT would review as literature -- Godfathers I & II, LA Confidential, and 2001: A Space Odyssey, to name a few.  "Comic books" gave us as diverse a list of movies as Scott Pilgrim, Ghost World, the Christopher Nolan Batmans, and Road to Perdition.  What Harris might have focused on was "superhero movies," which, Batman aside, usually are the kind of fungible action spectacles that I'm assuming he attributes to "comic books."  Not all comic book movies are brainless superhero spectacles.  Not all brainless superhero spectacles are comic book movies, though for fiscal reasons most are. 

  11. isaac_spaceman12:00 PM

    Just saw Matt's comment below, which is the same as mine. 

  12. isaac_spaceman12:05 PM

    So he's citing a Pixar movie as an example of the lack of originality in Hollywood?  That's confirmation bias if I've ever seen it. 

  13. isaac_spaceman12:06 PM

    Adam -- just wanted to say how much I prefer this avatar to the old one.  Man, I hated the old one.

  14. I didn't realize it had changed.  Do you really not like that ghostly image of someone who grew up around the corner from my house?

  15. Rovinsky12:33 PM

    I found the thesis of the article to be flawed-- movies like Inception don't get made, except it did, and others do too, but so do a bunch of comics-based movies.


  16. Jordan12:56 PM

    Call it the Tragedy of Newness.  It does not matter the subject area, the go to column for (hacky) writers has long been "things aren't as good as they used to be."  That this article was so poorly thought out doesn't help it's author's case.

    After spending paragraph after paragraph on the difficulty of getting Inception produced, he writes, "it has never been harder for an intelligent, moderately budgeted, original movie aimed at adults to get onto movie screens nationwide." He conveniently ignores the fact that Inception cost $160 million dollars (or nearly double the 8 other live action Oscar nominees combined).  That couldn't have anything to do with it.  Same thing with the Departed (itself a remake) and it's $90 million budget.

    But the problem is a lot deeper than that. Take his first example of an original film, Milk.  But does that get made if not for the Oscar winning Times of Harvey Milk?  And he points out True Grit, but...yeah.  Even if he ignores modern retellings, he should at least admit it is nothing new.  I was watching the Maltese Falcon the other day and they said that not only was it a remake, it wasn't even the first remake within ten years of the original release.  Good for TMC.  And they're always showing Thin Man movies, all six of them.  So much for the originality of the Golden Age of Hollywood.

    It's easy for him to point out all the remakes and sequels, they are--as he rightfully pointed out--recognizable commodities.  But there are, I'm sure, a lot of great movies coming out in the next two years we haven't heard of yet. But even if there aren't, is basing a movie on another movie any worse than on a book?

    But you should take everything I say with a grain of salt: my favorite movie--now almost 50 years old and considered one of the best of all time--is a sequel to a sequel of a remake that got mixed reviews upon release.  Call it the Tragedy of Newness.

  17. Jim Bell1:44 PM

    I want to see Rise of the Apes.  Even with that dull dull dull emcee Franco guy in the lead I want to see it.  Yayy!  Damn dirty apes.

  18. Bryan2:04 PM

    I dunno.  Cars 2 is a sequel to what is generally considered the worst Pixar movie, but also the most profitable because talking cars appeal to young boys.  That seems to fit his thesis pretty well.

  19. Joseph J. Finn2:14 PM

    <span> It does not matter the subject area, the go to column for (hacky) writers has long been "things aren't as good as they used to be." </span>

    Exactly.  Look at that Leo Grin essay that's been poking around recently, for instance, that's been taken apart by...well, everyone.

  20. isaac_spaceman2:27 PM

    But Monsters 2 is a prequel to what is generally considered a fine, very original movie, and it follows closely on the heels of Toy Story 3, which many people consider to be a fine, very original movie in its own right.  Saying that TS3 is evidence of a lack of originality or invention in Hollywood because it is a sequel to a sequel to a cartoon would falsely deny the originality and invention in all three movies in that series.  There is more evidence that Monsters 2 will meet Pixar's exacting standards for creativity (all of its movies except Cars and maybe A Bug's Life) than that it will not (Cars). 

    I happen to agree with Harris's thesis that the studio system stifles creativity, but the citations to Pixar show that Harris is data mining to support his thesis instead of evaluating all of the evidence on its own merit.  Citing evidence of a trait (lack of creativity) that supports Harris's thesis is not the same thing as citing evidence of superficial indicia of that trait (sequelness, comic-bookness, cartoonity).  It's too bad, too, because if Harris were willing to look past the superficial indicia to the basic issue, he might find that Pixar supports his argument from the other side:  by largely insulating Pixar's creative process from the barrage of interference from risk-averse mid-level studio executives, Pixar has been able to preserve and foster the creativity that gets deadened in the current studio system. 

  21. isaac_spaceman2:28 PM

    I believe I had told you before that it irrationally enraged me. 

  22. Anonymous2:47 PM

    Excellent points all around.  I grow more and more weary of sepia-toned retrospectives bemoaning current pop culture, which is pretty awesome overall.  There are so many things that get cited as being so much better back in the day, but I think my two favorite right now are the NBA and Saturday Night Live. 

  23. Benner3:03 PM

    Harris's strongest point is when he mentions that there are still a few very good films being made, and a lot of mindless blockbuster type crap that is designed to appeal to audiences regardless of native tongue, but little in the middle.  But I don't even know if that's true -- look at something like "The Lincoln Lawyer."  It will win exactly zero awards of any kind, but I have every confidence it will be entertaining.  Or those Ocean 11 movies.

  24. Benner3:20 PM

    The sheer frequency of Pixar sequels in close succession shows a move in the wrong direction, though.  (I don't know how "creative" it is to take familiar characters and put them in the plot of the Velveteen Rabbit, no matter how well done TS3 may have been . . .)  I don't take Harris to argue that superhero/animated movies are inherently suspect (he spends most of the article hyping Christopher Nolan), but he's right that with those genres, there's less incentive to try.  Though probably no less than RomComs, which he also criticizes for being frequently stupid. 

  25. Also, I'll argue that there have been some pretty darn fine superhero movies beyond Batman--the original Superman, the two Bryan Singer X-Men movies (particularly X2), the first Iron Man, the first two Tobey Maguire Spider-Man films--some of which have at least something more on their minds than just "things go boom" (Singer's X-Men films are arguably really about civil rights, and Spider-Man is a pretty darn effective coming of age story).

  26. Guest was me.  Use new browsers responsibly.

  27. Bryan5:11 PM

    I wasn't very clear in my comment.  Yes, using Pixar to demonstrate a lack of creativity is bunk.  Instead of lack of creativity in general, I was focusing on a specific complaint in Harris's essay, though: the idea that studios are mostly producing movies aimed at young males.

    I'm playing devil's advocate here, because Cars is the only movie you could point to if you were trying to accuse Pixar of that kind of pandering.  Mostly, Pixar is proof that mass audiences will eat up movies about mid-life crises, depressed senior citizens, or showtoon-loving trash compactors.  That said, if I were to try to follow the argument through, it would go something like this:

    3/4 of the sequels Pixar has made or is making are about a cowboy and a spaceman, or talking cars.  Cowboys, spacemen, and talking cars are popular with young males.  So, they still seem to be exhibiting marketing-driven behavior, especially for a studio where creative-typse are insulated from the executive-types.  Pixar may be making great movies, but they appear to be part of a troubling trend of studios being afraid to fund a movie that isn't aimed at males age 25 or under.

    I'm not even convincing myself, though.  I don't think TS2, TS3, or even Cars are any less personal than Pixar's other movies.  Just because they temporarily align with marketing doesn't mean it affected their decision at all.

  28. Genevieve5:55 PM

    I'll bite:  what's your favorite film? (or another hint will do, maybe - I'm not thinking clearly or I would've figured it out already.)

  29. girard316:11 PM

    In order for his thesis to have teeth, shouldn't he go back to a year and list movies that were made that year that were very creative? What year would that be?

    I might offer this retort: Hollywood has always been this way. Maybe not so much on the reboots and remakes and sequels, but certainly on peddling a set amount of pedestrian crap.

    The business/art argument has existed since man first created.

  30. Jordan6:43 PM

    The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

  31. Carrie10:42 AM

    Girard31: Most would point to the period of 1972--1974 as one where Hollywood was entertaining new ideas. The big movies then: Exorcist (based on a book), The Godfather (based on a book) and Chinatown (original). The real paradigm shift (forgive cliche) is 1975--1977 when Jaws (based on a book) and Star Wars (an original) are huge blockbusters and marketing departments realize that they were hits because of repeat business by teenage boys. Ever since, that's been Hollywood's sweet spot. This, even though it continues to be a surprise when a female-driven movie is a hit.

  32. Genevieve11:35 AM

    Ah, I wouldn't have caught that, as westerns are my movie blind spot.