...where distraction is the main attraction.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Bad Movies (a short explanation)

As you can tell from my film posts, I enjoy ridiculing bad films as much as anyone else.  Sometimes the criticism is considerably thought through.  Sometimes it's not.

I really do try to find something redeemable in all films because all productions, big or small, are created through herculean efforts by their creators.  No one sets out to make a bad film.  You've seen those eight minute long credit scrolls at the end of a flick.  Hundreds of people put their existence on hold, working 16-20 hour days (despite union rules) for months on end to assemble the best product they can with the resources they have.  American studio productions are miracles of effort.  Sometimes I think of them like living things, created and kept alive by the efforts of countless microscopic cells each performing their function to the utmost of their ability.

But sometimes the result sucks.

And, really, because what we watch is art, the problem is subjective.  Something (or many things) about the movie triggers our "This is Crap!" switch.  I'm going to attempt to turn the subjective a little bit towards the objective by looking at that Crap Catalyst via the Three E's:

Every major film release is powered not only by massive marketing campaigns, but also by our own personal hopes for the product.

On the macro side, tens of millions of dollars are put into posters, ads, trailers, TV spots, tie-ins, toys -- constant visuals (subtle and not) to keep us conscious of the impending opening day.  Everyone needs to know about it so that some will go and see it.  They'll err on going past the saturation point to maximize expectation and excitement.

On the micro side stands the individual potential customer.  We see what's in the theatres.  There are remakes, reboots, sequels, and prequels.  Then there are adaptations of books, TV shows, video games, board games, plays, comics, toys, and magazine articles.  Expectations are built right into these films.  That's why they're developed, financed, and released.  If we've seen the first movie or read the book or love the video game, our hopes are set, ignited in our consciousness on the lead up to actually seeing the movie.  Or, if they're releasing an original film, they've attached the best talent that they can get.  This excites those of us craving something (anything!) unique.

Between the macro and the micro forces at work, all of this ginned up expectation is almost impossible to meet and sustain.  Especially since we each anticipate something different.  Failure is almost inevitable.  Wide success is miraculous.

There are also two sides to the economical concerns.  The studio and the audience.

The executives in control of the nine-figure budgets have two roles:  hit that budget on the nose and make that money back.  Thus all of the large decisions are based around the dollar.  A production is greenlighted (not greenlit) when it meets the studio's marketable standards.  They hire above-the-line talent whose films have a history of financial success.  They set up corporate tie-ins, run audience testing, demand content inclusions and exclusions, all to make sure that this $100,000,000 behemoth turns a profit.  That's their career and future right there.

Yup.  (Source)
But those economical choices don't always benefit the product.  Firstly, the recycled ideas turn many of us off or, at the very least, prime the film for ridicule.  Then the talent they've deemed "successful" may not have gained that success via their own labor (see: Sam Worthington, Shia LeBouf, the entire Twilight cast).  Just because their last film turned a profit doesn't always mean they'll take that success with them.  Past performance does not guarantee future success.  And finally, if the content demands by the studio don't blend well with the final product, the audience will notice it.  Tacked on endings, Burger King references, colorful sidekicks, forced romantic subplots, softening of darker material -- the audience can pick that up.  We watch a lot of stuff every day.

Then there's us.  We're the ones paying anywhere from $8 to $18 for the right to sit in the big dark room.  We're the ones paying $5-$7 per drink or snack while we sit in the big dark room.  Turning over that sort of money to see something that we've never seen before influences the way we judge our movies.

Personally, since I've (almost entirely) stopped seeing movies in theatres and instead watch them via streaming or DVD my negative opinions have eased.  It's more difficult to enjoy the small things when massive bright lights are flashing in my face and when I've shed considerable cash.  Conversely, it's much harder to be WOWed by cinema when I'm not seeing it in the format for which it was created.  But it's been an financial decision.  The price of two 3D tickets with one water and one box of candy equals THREE MONTHS of Netflix.  I do miss sitting in the cinema to watch cinema, but simultaneously my expectations are more realistic due to a smaller investment of my limited means.

Ah, the reason I stayed up until 1:30am last night to work on my script.

No matter how hard those hundreds of production staffers work on the film, no matter how well they do their individual jobs, no matter how much money is funneled into the project, no matter how closely the studio monitors the final edits, no matter how great the idea was, no matter the promise, if the execution is off then everything collapses around it.  And by execution, I refer to the writing and direction.

Turning an idea into a great story is a true craft.  Weaving a story into a great script is an entirely different gift.  It's incredibly difficult.  And no matter how many consultants, development staffers, and writers are brought in, if that final script doesn't work on the page then it's going to be a disaster on the big screen.

There are infinite ways that a script can fail.  Here are a few problems that I've stared down in some of my projects: logic gaps, story flow hiccups, inconsistent characters, weak characters, boring characters, passive characters, on-the-nose dialogue, too subtle dialogue, too much dialogue, bad dialogue, bad endings, bad openings, scenes that don't play out correctly, scenes that go on too long, missing pieces that tie scenes together, slow pacing, insufferable second acts, boring subplots, subplots that are better than the master plot, and lazy choices band-aiding bigger problems.

Then the direction has to keep that story and script afloat, turning the pages into moving pictures.  This can be considerably more demanding than the writing.  Directors can fumble the pacing, plot, and characters as well and their work is what people see first.  They're responsible for tone, performances, and the image.  Every square inch of screen space in every second of every scene in a film is an opportunity for failure.

The audience's lives are now packed with visual storytelling, so we will know when films slip up.  And we will judge.  And we will complain online.  When our finances and time are spent watching the story, judgement heightens.

Maximus yells to the crowd, "Are you not entertained?!"

And I yell back, "No!  But I liked you in The Insider."