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 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:
Risk mitigationAlthough 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.
I apologize for reminding you that this is a thing that was made.
The screenwriter of the future, today!
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 spiralYou 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.
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.
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)