Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Mind Meld: If The SF/F Community Ran Hollywood...

Another SF Signal Mind Meld post is up. This one, "If the SF/F Community Ran Hollywood..." has contributions from Chris Roberson, Paul Levinson, Angela @ SciFiChick, John C. Wright, Jayme Lynn Blaschke and Yours Truly. All comments well worth reading, but it all boils down to the fact that we'd all like Hollywood to be smarter and to put story telling above other concerns. Still, the overall vibe seems to be that there is a LOT more good out there than there was even a few years ago...


Shadowhelm said...

Yeah, I think all movie fans would love to see better storytelling from Hollywood, but the movie execs can't seem to figure that out. Instead, they blame lower ticket sales on downloading and pirating. Give the people a quality product and they will buy it.

Joel Shepherd said...

I think yes and no. As has been pointed out, some really good work bombed at the box office (like Blade Runner, which only became popular later). I think the real challenge is to come up with concepts that are simultaneously intelligent and action-packed, where both the highbrow and the lowbrow are woven so tightly together that the studios couldn't pull them apart even if they wanted.

The best example I can think of is the original Matrix, where all the cool action and costumes sprung from a concept that really required audiences to think. Kill that, and you kill the action, so the studio had no choice but to keep the smart stuff.

Lou Anders said...

I agree wholeheartedly about the Matrix comment. Smart must be married to fun.

Incidentally, I disagree with comments elsewhere that Gattacca "failed." It was a low budget film that got a lot of Hollywood attention and furthered quite a few careers, so it succeeded on its terms.

Paul Wargelin said...

I found this today on Steven Grant's Permanent Damage column--which relates to Lou's points about Hollywood's lack of respect for writers:

"I think what has happened to comics is a kind of diagram of what must happen to artists and creative people in a society where things have to be produced that cost a lot of money, and that need a lot of machinery to produce them, and that need a very complicated distribution system. It's almost inevitable that the artist, who is the fountain, who is the original impulse for all this product, it's inevitable that he should become an employee, because of that almost irreconcilable conflict between the people who are putting money into it and producing the object and the individuals who are creating it. And because of the dominance of the economic power, the artist has to be a vassal, just an instrument. Now frequently an artist is able to get through all the interstices and the unfilled cracks in the system, and then their work...will create a sensation. But as soon as it becomes part of the distribution system, as soon as the wheels start locking together and everything works smoothly from the production and distribution point of view, then the [replacement artists who can produce the work the way the system wants it done] become important. Because they can manufacture the products, they can manufacture what's needed. So every now and then a great system, like Hollywood, will permit an individual, a brilliant creative person, to inject a little lifeblood into it, and then, all too often, that person is crushed...whether he's aware of it or not. The only way to confront this kind of situation is for individuals to be permitted to produce their own stuff. And Hollywood, for example, allowed individuals to work, and there was a little renaissance of movies. The European studios, when they had small budget pictures, because the total control was in the hands of individuals, were able to produce good things. But as soon as this thing reaches a wide market, as soon as it becomes a marketable commodity, the creative person is no longer needed. He doesn't fulfill any important function in this great engine. This is my pessimistic view of the situation of the artist in our society, and I don't know how that problem can be solved."

- Bernie Krigstein, during a 1978 Newcon panel discussion, as transcribed by Greg Sadowski, published in SQUA TRONT #10.

Lou Anders said...

Yes, brilliant. And you see it over and over, almost as a necessary cycle. So, for instance, Warner Bros "allows" Frank Miller to experiment with Batman to test the waters for a Dark version of the character. It's success scraps the proposed Bill Murray Batman comedy in the works in favor of Tim Burton's darker Batman film. This in turn makes mucho money, resulting in Warner Bros then issuing directives to DC about what they cannot do, resulting in censorship of Grant Morrison's Arkham Asylum. The wheel turns...

Paul Wargelin said...

In Hollywood, science fiction is spectacle–nothing more, nothing less.

The earliest days of filmmaking set this standard. Long before Flash Gordon’s serial adventures, Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion wonders, and Star Wars, George Méliès’s Le Voyage dans la lune (aka A Trip to the Moon in the United States) combined set paintings, animation, and special effects in an out-of-world adventure that pushed the technology—as well as the storytelling possibilities—of the medium in 1902. The clichés of the pulps are all there: rockets, battles with aliens—and women dressed in tight and revealing attire. These traits have dominated the very idea of the genre on film ever since. Over the years, this emphasis on SPX evolved beside the technology used to create it, offering moviegoers a visual marvel they couldn’t see on their TV sets, and becoming both benefit and bane to SF films.

And, if I may paraphrase Philip K. Dick in my wording, SPX is like any other tool, a benefit or a hazard. If it’s a benefit, it’s not our problem.

According to John C. Wright’s list of blockbuster, moneymaking films, SPX is a benefit to Hollywood. And I believe Will Smith summed up Hollywood’s current stance on science fiction films quite succinctly in Entertainment Weekly’s “The 50 Smartest People in Hollywood” article last November: “When I started in movies, I said ‘I want to be the biggest movie star in the world.’ The biggest movie stars make the biggest movies, so I looked at the top 10 movies of all time. At that point, they were all special-effects movies. So Independence Day—no brainer. Men in Black—no brainer. I, Robot—no brainer.”

The success of SF/Fantasy/Horror/Superhero blockbusters is Hollywood business as usual. Whether they’re soulless visual extravaganzas or actually possess characters and stories beneath their CGI surfaces falls to the eye of the beholder. Regardless, these spectacles make money, so why should Hollywood change its strategy? Studios want the safe, dependable franchises that will continue to line their coffers, rather than put any effort into something smarter—especially when general audiences have proven that they have no interest in anything deviating from the norm.

I believe the genre spectacles outsell your average films because audiences choose to experience them on the big screen more than dramas and comedies. With the time between a film’s theatrical run and its DVD release averaging between four to six months, what’s the point in spending $10 per person to see a drama or comedy that play just as well on a television. Genre films have become “must see” big screen films for the visuals alone.

Where genre films fail are usually due to franchises—pointless remakes, mediocre and awful sequels, and obvious attempts to cash in on a formula such as the recent saturation of children’s fantasy books being made into films. The Golden Compass, The Seeker: The Dark is Rising, and The Spiderwick Chronicles may all very well be based on wonderful novels. But if the trailers to these films are any indication, especially the CGI rendered creations, they all appear to be variations of Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia.

But all these multiplex-friendly, flashy extravaganzas—entertaining as some of them are—are no substitute for thought-provoking, quality science fiction. These films are being produced—A Scanner Darkly and Children of Men being two of my personal favorites, while The Fountain and Sunshine are two spectacularly flawed films—but unless they receive wider releases, they will continue to be overshadowed by the spectacles that mainstream audiences have concluded are the best the genre has to offer.

What the blockbusters lack in substance, television science fiction delivers. But even the popular shows embraced by the mainstream public—Lost, Battlestar Galactica, and Heroes—all suffer from their share of weak episodes and viewer abandonment.

So if I ran Hollywood…

1: Writers would get the respect they deserve. Directors, producers, and actors would work with them—not against them—to best serve the story.
2: There would be more original screenplays produced, less sequels (if any) and no remakes.
3: There would be less adaptations—a great book doesn’t always equal a great movie. Just because we can make a film from a novel doesn’t mean we should. There’s nothing wrong with a book remaining a book (although authors could always use the option money).
4: CGI and SPX will be used to enhance the story, not dominate it.
5: Genre television shows will have a maximum run of five seasons. Buffy, The X-Files, and the latter Star Trek shows all suffered from being on the air longer than necessary.
6: Season story arcs will be completely planned and written before filming.
7: Seasons will be shortened to twelve episodes—a lesson the major networks should learn from British and cable television. I’d rather watch twelve solid episodes than a scattering of good ones among the mediocre.
8: The networks and advertisers must commit to broadcasting and financing a full season’s story arc.