In my initial post I took a pretty generous attitude toward high concept films, television shows, and books. But what about all the dreck that gets made? In Hollywood, for instance…
Back on July 28, the Wall Street Journal’s Joe Queenan wrote a piece entitled: “Is 2010 the Worst Movie Year Ever?” Here's a link. In the piece Queenan slams pretty much the entire slate of Hollywood’s recent offerings. What does Queenan’s analysis have to say about the state of the high concept in the Hollywood film industry?
The core of his argument is not terribly surprising. It’s that plutocrats in Hollywood have chained their imaginations to warmed-over versions of yesterday’s high concept—oftentimes yesterday’s not even very good high concept—in order to cover the gi-normous production and marketing costs of making films. “Admittedly,” Queenan writes,
Hollywood is fighting a war on numerous fronts, and losing all of them. Revenues may be holding up but that is only because ticket prices keep rising; overall ticket sales are down. And because of the enormous cost of marketing a film—even a low-budget film—Hollywood likes to play it safe. This is why it's a whole lot easier to get a sequel to Shrek or Tron or Predator produced these days. This is an industry that actually makes sequels to bombs— The Incredible Hulk is a case in point—simply because the subject matter of the film is at least familiar to audiences. And because the public will have seen so many bad films between the original and the sequel, it may forget how bad the original Hulk was. The Four Amigos could soon be on its way.
Hey! I liked The Three Amigos...
But aside from that, if Queenan is right, then Hollywood is betting that familiarity even with a tired concept will rate higher with moviegoers than a more artful concept that is not familiar. But as ticket sales slip, it seems clear that Hollywood is losing the bet.
The thought emerges: what if Hollywood recognized that trying to play it safe is playing to lose, even in terms of the bottom line? Even better: what if the foremost concern of Hollywood execs was the crafting of compelling stories? Would that mean economic sepuku?
Not necessarily. The best new film I saw this summer was Toy Story 3. It presented an engaging twist on the original concept, with fantastic computer animation, unmatchable humor and an ending that sent middle-aged parents scrambling for the tissues. This latest example of the Pixar touch illustrates that fresh storytelling is not incompatible with enormous revenues—or even with revisiting an old idea.