Sunday, July 21, 2013

Safe failures from "Why Are Movies So Bad? Or, The Numbers"

I'd been meaning to spread out the Pauline Kael posts, but I realized that this 1980 essay about the relationship between corporate culture, misaligned incentives and cinema has an extraordinary number of salient points for some of our ongoing threads.

For example, Kael explains how, under a fairly common set of circumstances, it can be in an executive's best interests to opt for a project with higher costs and lower potential returns.

Why Are Movies So Bad? Or, The Numbers
There is an even grimmer side to all this: because the studios have discovered how to take the risk out of moviemaking, they don’t want to make any movies that they can’t protect themselves on. Production and advertising costs have gone so high that there is genuine nervous panic about risky projects. If an executive finances what looks like a perfectly safe, stale piece of material and packs it with stars, and the production costs skyrocket way beyond the guarantees, and the pictures loses many millions, he won’t be blamed for it—he was playing the game by the same rules as everybody else. If, however, he takes a gamble on a small project that can’t be sold in advance—something that a gifted director really wants to do, with a subtle, not easily summarized theme and no big names in the cast—and it loses just a little money, his neck is on the block. So to the executives a good script is a script that attracts a star, and they will make their deals and set the full machinery of a big production in motion and schedule the picture’s release dates, even though the script problems have never been worked out and everyone (even the director) secretly knows that the film will be a confused mess, an embarrassment.
It's worth noting that since Kael wrote this in 1980 (when she was describing a fairly new situation), budgets for major releases have far outpaced inflation. As far as I can tell, none of the top ten films of that year cost more than $90 million in 2013 dollars and only two broke $50 million (the major spectacle and proven property Empire Strikes Back and the notoriously bloated Blues Brothers). I suspect the dynamic Kael describes has a lot to do with that change.

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