Hollywood Plays It Safe

Monday, August 15, 2005

In an industry known for its multi-million dollar risk-taking, Hollywood is guilty of the worst offense of all: playing it safe.

Amid reports of a box-office slump, both industry insiders and observers are scrambling for answers. But a quick look at this year's box office numbers uncovers the answer quite quickly.

Of this year's Top 10 money-makers, fully half of them are either sequels or re-makes of previous movies. Scan further down the list, and you'll find a smattering of dressed-up old TV shows, recycled concepts, and - in at least one case - what may turn out to be an outright rip-off.

So why all the re-treads? Risk avoidance. When you're talking about re-makes and sequels, there's a built-in audience for those movies - the people who saw the original...But when you greenlight an original concept, it's a leap into the unknown.

It was leaps into the unknown that give us the movies that stand the test of time. To use the classic example ofCasablanca: would anyone even remember it if it had been a re-make or the sequel to another movie? Of course not. What makes Casablanca great is that it was an original idea executed perfectly. So movie-goers have continued to reward its creators year after year by going to see it at old movie houses and buying the DVDs. And that's the problem with going to the movies these days.

With budgets that can run over $100 million, they're looking to the bottom line and not to great movie-making. The theory seems to be "Even if the movie is awful, fans of the first movie (or TV show, etc.) will all want to come see it anyway so our downside is minimal." The problem is that the movies are awful and with the box-office to video shelf cycle getting shorter every day, consumers are making the choice to stay home from the theater to catch it on pay-per-view or a premium channel instead. And once you've seen what an awful movie it is, why would you invest in the DVD?

In movies as in life, there is no great reward without great risk. So it's hardly surprising that there haven't been any world-class box office champs this year: where is the willingness of the studios to take the world-class risks?

So how do we get back to great movie-making? The only way is to continue down this road until the studios are hurting badly enough that they get desperate enough to take a risk in order to start making money again. The folks in charge of the studios don't show any sign of making it happen on their own, so it's up to us to stay away from the theaters until they remember that making movies is about more than making a profit: it's about making magic.

(Also posted on Blog Critics)


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