October 30, 2006

The Trouble with Hollywood

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There is one universally-held truth in Hollywood: if a little bit of something makes money, more of it will make more money. Sounds simple enough. However, this statement is treacherous to moviegoers if they want to see anything new for their ten dollar investment.

True, in some broad sense, if a summer comic book superhero prequel does particularly well in 2005, like Batman Begins, then it might be a good bet that Superman Returns will be a box office blowout in 2006. But really, that is a generous estimation of the industry’s assembly-line mentality. Sequels are getting to be so frequent that I feel like I’m watching a prolonged TV miniseries. I venture to guess there will be summertime Spiderman releases until men actually evolve into spidermen. (Somewhere around 2048.)

Even in the independent scene, hackneyed films run rampant. So Capote was a mild hit in 2005. For an independent film to attract $49 million worldwide on a meager (by industry standards) $7 million budget, it actually did pretty amazingly. Philip Seymour Hoffman —one of those nameless guys you recognize from, well, everything since he’s in everything — actually got a best actor Oscar out of it too. So now let’s play pretend for a moment. I am a Hollywood producer. I see these numbers. What do I do? Well, in less than a millisecond I have my cell phone out and I’m telling my people to call some people to do lunch with some people even if they have to sleep with some people to get me another movie about Truman Capote! And thus, thanks to Warner Brothers’ spunky red-headed stepchild Warner Independent Pictures, we have Douglas McGrath’s Infamous.

How about considering just this month? I sat in the theatres this summer, probably watching Superman Returns or something, and I saw that there was going to be a movie coming out this fall about magicians in the turn of the century. Cool. That sounds like a new idea. In reality, though, I was watching two different trailers all summer, but since Hollywood is so redundant with their ideas, I had no idea The Prestige and The Illusionist were two distinct films. I went to the Regal Cinema at the Pyramid Mall last week and, lo and behold, two movies. About magicians. In the turn of the century. In Europe. Do I really need to go on?

On the other hand, there is some good to come out of this dearth of creativity: when once-upon-a-time it would be unheard of for films to star black actors, lately it seems that stars like the unstoppable legends of our time — Denzel Washington, Will Smith, and relative newcomers Jamie Foxx and Don Cheadle — have opened the door for producers to clamor for black actors in lead roles.

Also, It would have been ludicrous for films to take place in Africa before a couple years ago, and even though some did, did you ever notice how the main characters were always white? After the grim sleeper hit Hotel Rwanda in 2004 we’ve got plenty set in Africa this movie season. Catch a Fire is set in South Africa, The Last King of Scotland is set in Uganda, Blood Diamond in Liberia and Babel in Morocco. However, three of these films are being released to art houses instead of multiplexes. Also, it is still pretty much unheard of that a film is carried by entirely black leads. Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Connelly star in Diamond, Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett in Babel, and Scottish newcomer James McAvoy in King. Catch a Fire gives Tim Robbins a hefty supporting role, but it’s probably the most afro-centric of any film since Hotel Rwanda.

The films that are most lauded and celebrated through the passage of time, and even at present moment, are the ones that offer up something new and imaginative. Looking at the top box office successes of all time, Titanic, Star Wars and ET make up three of the top four. Running down the rest of the list, it’s true that sequels make up a large portion, from any of the rest of the Star Wars to anything with the words “Harry Potter” or “Lord of the Rings” in its title. But we also see everything from Forrest Gump to The Passion of the Christ to The Sixth Sense to My Big Fat Greek Wedding. With such diversity of topics and themes in that lineup, there’s no reason for producers to stick moviegoers with ten identical choices every time we see our local theater’s listings on Fandango.

Hollywood should stop being so redundant. If they released something original, I would personally buy ten tickets. But then they’d probably turn it into ten sequels. Oh well.