expectations of mediocrity

Of the many reactions to commentary over Avatar, my least favorite goes something like this:

“It’s James Cameron, what did you expect?” or “It’s a big blockbuster, what’d you expect?”

I’ll tell you, now that we’ve gotten so damn good at high tech stuff and sound effects and 3D and all of that, I expect studios to put some time and money into producing good scripts.  How many millions of dollars does it cost to write something new and compelling and emotionally poignant and relevant?  How many millions?  Having spent countless other millions on special effects is no excuse for mediocrity in the story.

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30 thoughts on “expectations of mediocrity

  1. “I expect studios to put some time and money into producing good scripts. How many millions of dollars does it cost to write something new and compelling and emotionally poignant and relevant? How many millions? Having spent countless other millions on special effects is no excuse for mediocrity in the story.”

    You are so young and naive. But less seriously, stories are hard, effects are easy. Why should they start putting effort into scripts now? Is there any evidence better scripts make more money? Sadly no.

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  2. I think it’s always possible to make effects better by spending more money (or at least, the point of diminishing returns lies well past the boundary of what we currently spend on most movies, with Avatar representing perhaps the furthest extension of that frontier). I’m not convinced at all the same is true for scripts. How would that even work?

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    • A handy rule of thumb with writers is that they’re all looking for a decent paycheck. If you offer a good sum for a script, (and maybe promise not to mutilate it en route to the screen) you could likely attract a higher class of writers than you would by offering peanuts. It might help.

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      • Exactly. Incidentally, the same goes for commercials. While some commercials are quite good, one would think they’d be a lot better in the age of the internet with so many amateurs out there doing much better, more funny, more interesting work than the highly paid ad agencies.

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        • I think that commercials have gotten about as good as they need to. They’re insanely better than they were when I was a kid. It used to be that we looked forward to the Superbowl commercials because they were so great and/or funny and/or interesting. Some people say that the Superbowl commercials have gotten worse, but I say that the commercials the rest of the year have just gotten that much better so the Superbowl commercials no longer stand out.

          Anyway, I think that there are two types of commercials out there. Those that are meant to be entertaining and grab your attention on that basis, and those that make a specific point. There are some that fail at either, but I think that a good portion of the “bad” commercials are simply in the second category and they don’t want to be in the first category because it would interrupt the more-or-less direct message.

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  3. Hear, hear! The country is full of talented writers who cannot earn a living by writing. But I don’t think the storyboard is put together by anyone on the actual story writing end anymore, any more than decisions about which books to publish are made by the people at publishing houses who actually read books.

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  4. Sturgeon’s Revelation is a difficult one to stomach.

    The fact that Vonnegut’s insight that criticism of light fiction is like donning a full suit of armor to attack an ice cream sundae is additionally biting.

    And yet one watches such things as, oh, Episode One and one cannot escape the thought that “Jesus Christ, this sucks and it didn’t have to.”

    This sucked. It didn’t have to.

    I completely understand.

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  5. Amen. I’d love to see blockbusters with scripts that rival the best of film writing. And there’s no reason such a dream isn’t possible. I’m still waiting for a big swords and sorcery fantasy movie with a script as impressive as the visuals. No, Jackson’s LotR films didn’t qualify.

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    • HBO is coming out with Martin’s series this year or next (I think this year…?) which should be amazing. High fantasy, excellent writing, all the production and direction you would expect from HBO….way better than anything you’ll see in the theater sadly.

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  6. I’ve asked this myself any number of times and I think Dan’s point is probably the best explanation, better scripts don’t make more money, thus they’re less important than other factors. I’d add to the mix, directorial vision. J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek is a movie that stands out as a fairly good movie but upon closer inspection is full of inconsistencies and odd characterizations. I wouldn’t say the lack of money or stupid writers hypothesis is a terribly good explanation. However, the idea that things are that way simply because the director wanted them to be that way for either visual effect or expediency in the story, I think makes more sense.

    I’m with you, though, considering the millions and months spent to produce movies, I don’t think it’s asking too much that they a.) make sense and b.) are good. Given the quality of old movies, it’s not like Hollywood can’t do it.

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  7. There are so many great sci fi books out there which could be made into movies, or even better, mini-series. My guess is that the movie/tv biz doesn’t see tapping the fertile vein of written sci-fi as having any advantage. It doesn’t guarantee money and authors are probably a pain in the astro-butt to work with. They want to see their works produced with fidelity and creativity, which just gets in the way. The only sci fi we get are war or evil aliens coming to get us stories.

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      • A part of me wonders if the movie format itself has just reached its limitations. Lost is great, but is great in part because they have hours and hours to work with. They can fit in both the sensational and development. Movies, I think, have to make something of a choice. You spend all of this money developing a universe and you want to showcase it as much as possible even at the expense of plot. That’s ot to say that they have to be as lame as they often are, but I think there is a ceiling as to how much they can spend on character or story development at the expense of the special effects that they paid so much for.

        I’m reminded a bit of the first Final Fantasy movie. My take was that the movie was quite beautiful, but that the plot was quite lame. What I missed at the time and have come to appreciate since was that they wrote the plot around the beautiful effects. A better plot probably wouldn’t have had that cannon and the destruction of that world, but they needed those things to show off what they could do.

        This is one of those things where it might start getting better as special effects get cheaper. Then it’ll be easier to walk away from all the cool visuals they could accomplish and worry more about plot.

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  8. Another thing is that blockbusters are increasingly made with the international market in mind, therefore they focus more on the visual than on the verbal, which is increasingly cursory and easily translated. I’ve noticed that some of these films are approaching the silent movie in that they actually have very little dialogue and it’s fairly inconsequential.

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  9. Risk aversion E.D. Great or even good scripts would make you think. They’d make you question assumptions and preconceptions. Among their million strong target audience it’d cause dissention and risk depressing turnout. Great movies would be controversial. Even good ones would risk being unpopular. Studios would rather focus group and market target bland lowest common denominator mush to net the maximum bang for their buck. The greasy fingerprints of the dismal science of economics is all over this one.

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    • But isn’t there also the chance that with a great blockbuster – a really terrific sci-fi or action film – that it would have an even greater chance at spawning a sequel and raking in millions more in profits? I mean, at least something unique – like Indiana Jones for instance – may not have had the most terrific script but there at least we had a unique protagonist, some humor, and so forth. (I didn’t like the 4th one, but the first and third were great…) It doesn’t have to be high literature to be interesting, consistent, and unique.

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      • I agree E.D. but the Hollywood suites are businessmen/women. When possible they like their profits predictable and significant. Sure they’d love to have an insightful blockbuster but they’ve learned a lot about how the movie going public will respond to a given film. They’ve come a long way from the days of stumbling onto an Indiana Jones hit by accident. You’re a Hollywood Executive for instance. You can choose between a movie with odds of 33/33/33 genius/average/flop or a movie with odds of 95/5 profitable but focus group bland or flop. Keep in mind that when you pull a flop card you’re probably out on your ass and you go from top of the world to nobody. What would you choose?

        I suspect that the executives are not in Hollywood to make art now, they’re there to manufacture a product and meet their quarterly budget goals.

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  10. apropos of the utter lameness and lack of creativity of much of the movie industry is that a remake of an undisputed classic, perfect in itself, Slap Shot is in the works. I expect the Canadian contingent on this blog to be appropriately outraged.

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  11. ” How many millions of dollars does it cost to write something new and compelling and emotionally poignant and relevant? ”

    You find me the story that’s “new and compelling and emotionally poignant and relevant” to a mass audience and I’ll personally give you the millions to go make it.

    Not that I have millions to give you…but I’m reasonably certain what’s “new and compelling and emotionally poignant and relevant” to each person is completely subjective and does not come in “one-size fits all. ”

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    • Pride & Prejudice – which as spawned any number of theatrical versions and of course adaptations.

      A Tale of Two Cities – also adapted for film but the source story has sold hundreds of millions of copies.

      The Harry Potter Series.

      I really could go on. I don’t think the problem is Hollywood can’t, I think the problem is Hollywood sees no reason why it should…which for an industry that builds such a mythos around it’s ‘art,’ is asking for criticism.

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