Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Hits Keep Coming. by Sam Stafford

The Hits Keep Coming
After I read Mike's article on Robocop, and his three observations on how movies have changed since the first Robocop, I thought to myself, wouldn't it be easier to just say there's an elephant there?
The man who touched the trunk said: "An elephant is like a thick tree branch".
"No! It’s like a pillar," said another who touched the leg.
"You’re both wrong!", said a third who touched the tail, "the elephant is like a rope."
So after I blathered at him a little bit about hit-driven economics and feedback effects and looking at pachyderms from a more holistic perspective, he said I should write an article, which is what Mike usually says when he wants me to stop nerding at him (and nerd at you, gentle reader, instead). What I'm going to try to do here is break down the reasons behind the evolution he was describing, and why we shouldn't expect to stop seeing bland remakes in theaters any time soon.

Hit-driven economics
Hit-driven economics is a creation of an age without enough room to carry everything for everybody.
That's from The Long Tail, which was written ten years ago and has since spawned its own website and book and stuff. It's worth reading the whole thing, but the part I'm about to talk about is the “head” that we see in graphs like this:
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The idea behind hit-driven economics is that when a finite number of products can be delivered to a potential audience, only the hits survive – that's the “head” on that graph, the small number of products that are way more successful on an individual level than any of the more niche or “unsuccessful” products on the “long tail”. In the movie business, if your movie isn't a big enough hit to fill a theater to acceptable levels, the theater isn't going to show your movie at all. In the game business, if your game isn't a bit enough hit to be worth stocking on Gamestop's limited shelf space, you're not going to sell anything to Gamestop customers.

So if you're making a blockbuster movie, or a AAA game, you have to go big or go home – anything that's not in the top ten might as well not exist. That's what we're talking about when we describe a “hit-driven” market. Stakes are high and competition is fierce, and it only gets fiercer as the number of competitors vying for that same limited amount of exposure increases, even as the audiences get harder to grab.

In his review of Star Trek: The Star Trek, Mr. Plinkett (Mike Stoklasa) described the difficulty of attracting audience attention as the “blurring effect”:

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With more and more movies being produced each year, each individual movie has a harder time standing out with so much else competing for audience attention. Movies that were released a few decades ago are actually sharper in our cultural memory than movies released today because of this effect. This is not a very cheerful thought if your entire business depends on creating something that stands out from everything else available.

Risk mitigation

Although we like to think of making a movie as an artistic labor of love, the reality of a big Hollywood picture is that there are investors who want to get their money back, and they're ultimately the ones that filmmakers have to answer to – not critics, and definitely not fans. That means eliminating, or at least mitigating, the risk that a movie will be anything less than a “hit” that will fill enough theaters to make back all the money poured into it.

A necessary element of a hit movie is that it will grab enough attention to get people to see it in the theater on opening weekend, which brings us back to that “blurring effect.” Existing IP comes with built-in “mindshare” simply by virtue of coming from that “sharper” period of time. The increasing frequency with which we're seeing remakes, reboots, and remakes of reboots is an attempt to fight the blurring effect and reduce the risk that a movie will be born into obscurity instead of vanishing into it on its own merits.

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I apologize for reminding you that this is a thing that was made.
In his Robocop article, Mike discussed the trend toward more action and less subtlety in movie scripts. This is a natural effect of playing it safe and trying to keep audience appeal as broad as possible, which is increasingly seen as critical to success. Filmmakers have recently gone so far as to use mathematical models (as described in this NYT article) to statistically maximize the value of a script in terms of probable box office return.

Soulless as this might seem, it's not really anything new; decisions in the entertainment business have long been driven by conventional wisdom about what does and doesn't sell, and mathematical modeling is just taking that same decision-making process and formalizing it. By the way, if you ever wondered why it is that so few Hollywood films pass the Bechdel test, it turns out that it's not an accident – it's just another way to minimize the risk of a movie deviating too far from what's been shown to work before. Keep in mind that all of this comes back to the question of “will it make our money back?”

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The screenwriter of the future, today!
The last pillar of risk mitigation I'll mention is name recognition, which does a lot to get people to the theater. Audiences will support the work of an actor or director they like even when all signs point to the movie being a turkey – this is backed up by statistics that show that although star power has diminishing returns for a movie that's strong enough to do well on its other merits, it can reduce the impact of negative critical reviews. On a more anecdotal level, you can probably think of times you've gone to see a movie you knew was going to be terrible because you were a fan of an actor in it. That effect is exactly why you frequently see good actors cast in mediocre movies for parts that seem like odd choices – if having that actor's face in the trailer will contribute more to the financial success of the movie than it will cost to pay them for the role, it's just good business to pay for that face. If they turn in a good performance that's gravy.

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I swear Bruce Campbell gets only like... two or three more free passes from me before I stop buying tickets for these things.
The downward spiral

You might have noticed that a lot of the elements that can go into a movie to make it less risky also make it more expensive – negotiating IP rights costs money, star actors and directors cost money, and for many types of movie visual effects are a consideration (action movie scripts require a certain number of expensive set pieces). The more money goes into a project, the lower the tolerance for financial risk is, and the broader the appeal needs to be in order for the project to be profitable.

My theory is that this creates a feedback loop that drives movies to be increasingly expensive, and also increasingly bland, as they all jockey for the position of lowest common denominator in a slowly shrinking market. We can see this happening in the game industry as well – some of the most financially successful titles are simple iterations on existing franchises, and budgets balloon as game studios try to stay on top of the expensive tech and talent that are required to jockey for a position on the shelves of Gamestop and Walmart. This didn't happen overnight; it's a natural progression driven by the realities of a hit-driven market and the fact that the surest way to create a hit is to spend more money than the competition while taking fewer risks.

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What to do?

It's possible that you've started thinking at some point while reading this that it's time to lobby for change in the entertainment industry, in which case I regret to say you've missed the point. The driving force behind this slow slide into mediocrity isn't some evil supervillain who needs to be shown the error of his ways, it's reality itself – the limited shelf space at Walmart and the limited population within driving distance of a given movie theater naturally give rise to hit-driven economics, and the financial costs of producing these forms of entertainment mean that no sane person wants to make ten creatively risky projects and have only one of them be a hit.

The good news is that change is coming; it's just not going to be in the theaters or on the shelves. If you read The Long Tail when I linked it earlier, you already know all about it – it's in that other part of the graph composed of a bunch of smaller and more niche-y projects. Individually none of them has enough mass market appeal to fill a theater, or even get stocked on a shelf, but by finding its relatively small audience through other channels each is able to turn a profit, and when you add up everything in the “tail” it's quite a bit bigger than the “head”.

Raph Koster dramatically described this transition (way back in 2006, when digital distribution platforms like Steam and Netflix were still a bit of a novelty) as the end of the Age of the Dinosaurs – the comet is coming, he argued, and it's the smaller and more adaptable mammals that will inherit the earth. The dinosaurs are still lurching along, but from my point of view at least they've become increasingly irrelevant – my favorite movies and games of the last few years have overwhelmingly been low-budget titles that I've found on the Internet rather than in the brick and mortar world. So the moral of the story, if there is one, is that if you're dissatisfied with the hits on offer, don't be afraid to embrace your inner hipster and explore the fringes. There's cool stuff out there.

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Our advertisers would like me to clarify that the foregoing paragraph was satire, cultural conformity is awesome, and liking things for their own sake makes you worthy only of ridicule. Gaze now upon this caricature and laugh heartily, secure in the knowledge that you are a valued member of the herd. (Wait, we have advertisers? -Ed)

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