Monday, December 19, 2011

Studios Studiously Stick to Steadfast Solicitation of Salary

@Veirut says: "I suppose I'd be interested in something that would answer "what compels American cinema to do so many rehashes (rehashing foreign films, rehashing older films, etc.)?" It's something that kind of irks me, I guess, but it seems vague and uninformed, too."

Let me preface this all by saying that, yes, there are foreign countries with incredible amounts of rehashes and such. And yes, even Hollywood, in all its blockbuster, CGI glory, puts out some wonderful films.

But, and I say this without any snide factor or sarcastic statement of the obvious, in Hollywood, it really is all about the money. More so than other countries, because more money is involved. The corporate machinations behind Hollywood are certainly apparent in different ways in all countries, but Hollywood's groveling before corporations and commercial interests in probably the worst in this regard. Once again, money and power begets money and power.

It's easy to take a very cynical look to Hollywood when you start to really examine how it works. Again; there are some great works that come out. But the amount of rehashes and remakes shouldn't come as a surprise. In many ways, the movie industry is becoming more like the gaming industry, in this regard.

I'm going to use a personal anecdote here, forgive me, but it's one that stays with me. I used to know a guy who is now at New York University - arguably the best film school in the world - and is already an acclaimed director for his young age (22). He started making films, legitimate, contest winning films, as early as high school. At that time, I was still fumbling around with what I wanted to be when I got older (still am, mind you), and we got to the subject of working on movies. Around then, I was into writing - mostly short stories and the like - but we talked about writing screenplays for movies, since we had both worked on movies together on several occasions, and I had helped write some. My friend mentioned to me that writing screenplays is really a shit job, because ultimately, you don't get to write anything. The average screenplay goes through dozens of rewrites and edits by everyone but the original writer, to the point where it often doesn't resemble its original form at all.

And the thing is, a lot of screenplays these days aren't even written by the expert writers who set out to write them. Producers; the guys who once mostly helped get together funding and logistics support, while occasionally influencing the staff, now oftentimes come up with the plot itself. The mental state is different here; a writer knows that in order to get a screenplay accepted by a company to use, it has to be seen as good. A producer doesn't have that oversight - he or she is a big-time step in nabbing money and logistics - and so they often can do what they want since they're the ones providing a lot towards the movie.

And so, many times, the producer comes up with the movie and the concept. At this point, a producer will sit down with the "plot" and attempt to hit at least two of the four Hollywood markets. These are young females, young males, older females, and older males (last I checked, this constitutes a lot of people). Hollywood oftentimes looks down on grabbing all four (unless you work for Pixar), and so what you have is, say, a producer come up with an action movie (Giant Explosions Part 4: Explosions in Space, for the younger men) and then try to ham-fist another market in there. Since Hollywood is still stuck in the 50s at times, this means that romance is inserted to appeal to the younger women (this often amounts to the gung-ho hero meeting a chick and banging her 30 minutes later, hooray subtlety).

Now that the "plot" is formulated, it's time to call a writer to come up with dialogue to fill up time between explosions and sex and CGI. Talk about being between a rock and a hard place. There's only so many ways you can make Shia LeBeouf or Mark Wahlberg look like a decent actor. In many ways, it's kind of like the Dr. Pepper "It's not for women!" commercials (yes, they are terrible, by the way.) There's a point when the character in the commercial is riding in a Jeep, he throws something out of it to get rid of three Jeeps trailing him, and then points to the camera, with a big cheesy grin, and says "catchphrase!" Besides being the only worthwhile part of the incredibly sexist ad, that is, essentially, what screenwriters of action movies, and even other movies, are distilled to. Coming up with that all important catchphrase.

Obviously, action is not the only genre in Hollywood, but the process remains the same. Producers are seeing an increasing role in movie creation, screenwriters a decreasing one. This is increasingly making money a bigger and bigger motivating factor, and since producers aren't usually involved in the creative industry or practiced in writing, they fall back on established properties, remakes, and rehashes. You have to wonder where the motivation for anyone to actually want to be a screenwriter will come from in the future, knowing that you as a writer will have little say at all in your script.

There are still some steps that may involve writers. Some movies start out with spec scripts; original scripts that writers basically send out anywhere and everywhere in the hopes of getting noticed. Even then, producers, associates, and other writers will sit down and go over an accepted spec strip and redo do it halfway to Timbuktu. And even still, spec scripts may just work as examples that producers use to hire a writer, and then assign that writer to an entirely different project. "Oh hey, you wrote that powerful social-political analysis and moving tragedy of academic competition in East-Asia. We're having you write catchphrases for Explosions Part 5: Explosions in Absolute Zero."

The Halloween franchise was basically given to John Carpenter by two producers who wanted a movie involving a psycho babysitter that murdered people. His original films and ideas that he wanted to work on were far different. Even original IPs are often remade and rebranded to be a familiar property; "I, Robot," "Starship Troopers," and the "Diehard" and "Ocean's Eleven" sequels started as original projects that were morphed into old stories and add-ons.

And it's not just the lack of creative insight on the part of writers and such that hamper new ideas and IPs. There's a need to appeal to the international market. "Cool guys walking away from explosions" is pretty universal. Repelling an alien invasion hellbent on destroying the planet is pretty universal. The aforementioned academic rigors of post Lost Decade Japan aren't going to strike a chord with many people outside of Japan. And between subtitles and dub jobs losing culturally specific humor or references in translation, there's a perceived need by studios to keep it simple and stupid. This is why a sequel or remake is so easy; it's already a franchise people are familiar with and understand.

For instance, "Transformers: Dark of the Moon" isn't even in the top ten in the US in all-time gross - it's 18th. Worldwide? It sits up there at number 5 all-time. This isn't because foreign audiences are simplistic or anything, and marketing plays a big role, too, but giant robots that blow stuff up is more universal. Everyone knows what is going on, who the bad guys are, and what's at stake if the good guys lose (even if they never do). It's not something that gets lost amid the myriad of global cultures. Just look at some of our favourite anime works; "Spirited Away" was backed by Disney, won an Academy Award, and was Japan's highest grossing movie of all-time. America itself was seeing an animation renaissance from the likes of Pixar and Dreamworks. But it never did anything stateside, because a lot of the cultural values are somewhat Japanese. And oh yeah, "2012"? $166 million in the US (181st all-time). Worldwide it did over $600 million (37th all-time).

This explains the rehash of foreign films, too. American production companies often seek to "globalize" foreign films that they get their hands on, in an effort, once again, to appeal to a larger market.

There's way, way more egregious cockblocking that studios do with regards to movies, and many of the other problems are terrifyingly worse. Want to know why the indie movie scene that every year is supposed to "take off" or "revolutionize" film never happens? Why the end of rehashes and commercialization and uncreative Hollywood never takes place? One major reason is how the studios rig the rating system. The MPAA is the largest studio lobbyist group, and oversees the ratings board and pays their salaries. The MPAA is funded by major studios and run by them, who then essentially run the "non-partisan" ratings board. Want to know why that creative and dark indie movie that flashed tits for five seconds got an NC-17, but big studio produced "Blood, Guts, Sex, and Fuck" skates by with an R rating even though it has a 20 minute bestiality scene that ended up in machete decapitation? It's because the studios want the studio made movie (the latter) to make the money, but not the indie movie that they have no ties to. So the creative and fresh indie movie gets an NC-17 and is never seen of nor heard of again, and "Blood, Guts, Sex, and Fuck" ends up delighting high school and college bachelors forever.

And then there is merchandising. Infact, just the other day me and a couple online buddies were discussing why Pixar made Cars 2 and not some new, witty, charming IP that they seem so good at.

Because toys!

Merchandise is a huge, huge part of the movie industry, as it brings in about $140 billion a year. Not only that, it provides a large profit margin for the studios, who don't have to advertise, make, ship, or oversee the toys (the toy company does that), but can charge a large licensing fee. And you wonder why there was a post-Episode 3 (but pre-episode 4) Han Solo action figure even before episodes 1-3 came out. Nobody ever said George Lucas doesn't love his money (admittedly, I owned the action figure, and it was pretty cool when I was growing up). Disney alone has made over $8 billion from Cars merchandise. Avatar, the highest grossing movie of all time, made "just" $2.7 billion from ticket sales.

So, what does this have to do with your question? Merchandise can build on two things; universality, and previous works. It is much easier to sell toys for an established franchise, and much easier to sell toys for a Michael Bay or James Cameron movie than a Jamin Winins one, especially when the former pair often has big robots, big explosions, and little clothing, all of which can connect with just about anyone.

What all of this means is that we all get to enjoy more of the same from Hollywood. One day when you're 80 years old, you can complain about not having 4D smell-o-vision in your Transformers movie like they will in 2070, or some such.

Sources used: (Top Grossing Films)

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The ECB or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bonds

Lots of talk has been growing lately about the fate of the EU in the midst of by far its biggest economic crisis in its still short existence. Some have even gone so far as to say that the EU will collapse, that it was always going to collapse, or that it should be ditched, anyways.

The EU was and still remains a good idea. As a cultural achievement it is unique, and as a recipe for further cooperation and cultural ties, it remains potent. The economic problems of the European bloc are largely independent of the EU existing or not, with the only real drag being that countries like Greece can not affect their money, as they are tied to the Euro. Their debt issues, however, are not an EU cause and effect.

Monetary issues aside, the EU is not in its final throws or doomed to insolvency. The new "fiscal union" is still a bit wishy-washy but it's a definite step in the right direction.

One looming problem is France and Germany and how they have wrangled such control over the EU, with Central and Eastern European members publically complaining about their diminishing political role. Merkel and Germany want to bring in "Ordnung" and a more focused drive on austerity and low wage growth and such, and that's a fair suggestion, considering how America's systemic debt wreaked havoc on the economy, but with France and Germany offering the only two visions for the EU so far, and both of them being rather long term in nature, someone needs to step in and convince the investors and bond markets that in the short term, defaults/state bankruptcies aren't going to happen. The ECB needs to be fully involved at this point, but the Germans aren't letting them introduce cash into the system. Austerity is a good long term solution, but growth is the biggest issue right now, particularly in southern Europe. But with the UK - well, Cameron at least - continuing to want to be a footnote in Europe, there may not be any country that can offer a third option to Germany and France.

However, one of the root problems has been, and continues to be, the EU's low growth. This model of low growth, low consumption, low inflation, low unemployment, and low wage increase, is the model that Germany has followed and tried to push, but it's just not the best model to follow. This is why austerity isn't going to work right now, and why Germany's race to the bottom through trade surplus has been so damning to the EU.

Besides general reform to make the EU more efficient, less susceptible to corruption, etc., Germany needs to stop fighting the Eurobonds move, more bailout money needs to be offered to countries that require it to be kept afloat, and the ECB needs to be allowed to inflate the Euro. The lack of monetary flexibility and resistance to it is just throwing a wrench into the whole system. The problem is that individual countries inside the EU can't inflate or deflate their currency to meet economic needs, since they're all tied to the Euro. But if the ECB can't influence the Euro, then one of the most crucial elements on the table is gone.

Then, Germany just needs to give up its current economic trajectory. Low growth and siphoning wealth away from other countries via the trade surplus throws everyone under the bus, including Germany if the whole system fails.

China has already offered gobs of money to the EU, but has requested trade normalization, which the west, seeing China as the big bad boogey man, seems hesitant to do. But both the US and China have huge vested interests in the EU, particularly China, which, as an export based economy, needs that market to retain its (the EU) consumer spending. China is also trying to buy influence on an international stage; what better way then to help the EU with some money when needed? And while Germany is part of the problem, as I alluded to, they have the money and resources to help alleviate it.

Unfortunately, a lot of the conservative groups are switching this economic debate into a political one, and trying to limit the central bank, regulation, and labor laws. Those won't inherently fix the growth problem - see, the US. Monetary fixes and spending are what is needed to be done, which neither ideological base seems intent on. Sometimes, you have to bite the bullet. Hardcore, compromise-less ideology does not always work in politics. Did anyone in the US want to see tax money given to car companies? Not particularly, but the alternative was much worse. Same with the EU. Do we want to see the banks and governments get our money? No, not really. But more people don't want a severe depression, either.