The Economics of Cowardice

Martin laments - with some help from Edward D Wood Jr and George Weiss - the lack of real risk taking in Hollywood. But could comics hold the answer?

"Crap with a star"

Somewhere in the comments section at DoG, I have misquoted an exchange between Johnny Depp and Mike Starr in Tim Burton’s biopic of Edward D. Wood Jr. Let me grab my Ed Wood DVD and get the quote right…

ED WOOD: “I was thinking about what you were saying, about how your movies need to make a profit. Now what is the one thing, you put it in a movie, it’ll be successful?”GEORGE WEISS: “Tits.”

ED WOOD: “No, better than that – a star!”

GEORGE WEISS: “Kid, you must have me confused with David O. Selznick. I don’t make major motion pictures, I make crap.”

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ED WOOD: “Yeah, but if you take that crap and put a star in it, then you’ve really got something!”

GEORGE WEISS: “Yeah – crap with a star.”

I feel that I have paid money, many times, to see Crap With A Star at the cinema – and I’m pretty damn sure you have too. As an unreconstructed 1970s male, I’m also fairly certain I’ve crunched a lot of popcorn to Film With Added Tits. These are some of the numerous ways of shortening the odds in the movie-making business, and if we could boil Hollywood’s already-reductionist philosophy down to the kind of sexy, one-line treatment that loosens a producer’s chequebook, it would be: Let some other sucker innovate.

Who exactly are these suckers who play the long-odds, hit the jackpot and start the no-risk Hollywood Xerox machine running?

Firstly, those with nothing, or little, to lose. Pocket-money productions like The Blair Witch Project (354,614.29% profit on a $35,000 investment), Super Size Me (22,614.90% profit)and Pi (3,340.08% profit) constitute a first-class wet-dream for investment backers, and the knock-offs ensue almost immediately, until diminishing returns send the suits back to scanning the dollar columns in Variety for new strange phenomena.

To find the other type of ‘sucker’ we have to overleap the huge gulf between lucky, no-budget tiddlers and the creative behemoths of Hollywood, for it is the latter who have enough prestige and financial independence to indulge their pet projects in the face of any opposing Hollywood trends. Kubrick made 2001 in a climate of utter disinterest in science-fiction, which was then considered a juvenile genre on a par with horror. The apparent lack of appetite for a bloody re-telling of the crucifixion of Jesus didn’t stop super-rich Mel Gibson from bankrolling the 11th most profitable film ever with The Passion Of The Christ. James Cameron brought period drama and unhappy endings back to Hollywood in the not-doomed-after-all blockbuster Titanic.

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(Let’s not talk about Michael Cimino, who killed New Hollywood with Heaven’s Gate and put the boardroom back in charge again)

In between these two extremes lies the final source of original thought in Hollywood: the medium-budget film-maker who manages to innovate within the strictures of reliable genre movies, such as M Night Shyamalan, who ultimately joined his own legion of imitators in seeking to re-mine the shock value at the end of The Sixth Sense.

And that’s about it. Thereafter the pitches of Hollywood shall echo with the names of unexpected successes:

“It’s Jaws with alligators!”“It’s Saw with spoons!”“It’s Toy Story Meets Deep Throat!”“It’s Gandhi with tits!”“It’s Titanic but the ship doesn’t sink!”

And if the halo-effect of these citations isn’t enough, just option the rights and remake a successful film outright. Damon for Kane, anyone? A subject for another time, perhaps…

The reason I am weary this week of pre-fabricated safety clauses is that I have recently seen a 2007 film that had a lot of potential and a fairly original concept, but was patently focus-grouped to death, and shoehorns the supposedly-bankable detritus of several other genres inappropriately into its runtime. The effect of this is to dilute a strong core idea with so many insurance policies as to render it incomprehensible.

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I can’t discuss the film in question, since I am currently reviewing it, but I need cast my mind back only momentarily for another recent example of super-hybrid bullshit: Danny Boyle’s Sunshine. It’s 2001 with ghosts. It’s The Descent in space. It’s Event Horizon with an even worse plot. It’s all these lamentably successful pitches and more, throwing away one of the very few chances cinema ever gives us to see real science-fiction, because… real science-fiction is too risky. It’s a risky genre that costs money.

Perhaps there is a better future for Hollywood fantasy and sci-fi in cases where a following (and a potential market) can be pre-developed in the form of ‘cult’ graphic novels, before the film treatments even start. Perhaps comic-strip illustration is becoming an elaborate storyboarding environment, a bridge between the novelist and the screenwriter, a proving-ground where writers can let their imaginations roam free beyond the confinements of the current trends in cinema to create enticing worlds that beg to be filmed without requiring anyone in Hollywood to – God forbid – pick up a proper book. Whatever it takes.

Miller’s The Dark Knight pretty much got Batman made back in 1990; Marvel are on a roll with superhero adaptations; the Sin City sequel is underway; and Hellboy II: The Golden Army…yeah, my argument begins to crumble here.

But if there has to be a buffer-zone between the written word and the filmed frame, I would prefer that it be in the cross-hatching of a graphic novel than the disapproving chatter of accountants as they watch a focus group scowling at their biscuits and tea behind a one-way mirror…ED WOOD: Is there a script?

GEORGE WEISS: Fuck, no! But there’s a poster! It opens in nine weeks in Tulsa.

Martin writes his (mostly) sci-fi column every Friday at Den Of Geek.

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