Are the Studios Stuck in a Creative Groove?
By Pen Densham
Pen Densham is a writer/director/producer of 16 features including Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Backdraft and The Magnificent Seven. He was a speaker at the recent STN Convention in Los Angeles. We found this article interesting and asked him if we could share it with you.
Reprinted with permission from StudioSystemNews.com
Most Hollywood studios seem trapped between trying to achieve two goals: either replicating their own franchises or creating clones of another studio’s hits. Here comes another Superman, Iron Man 3, Hangover 44. Even Robocop is coming back from the … dead.
We seem to be in the Twilight zone (not Rod Serling’s, but Lionsgate’s), as the studios are all trying to find the next Twilight, a relatively cheap franchise that powered a giant audience response. Even we at Trilogy find ourselves guilty of using “Twilight” as a buzzword when selling some of our projects (along with The Hunger Games for good measure). It’s lazy shorthand that gets executives’ attention.
“A record 31 sequels and 17 reboo ts are being lined up in 2013 as producers and studios play it safe with cinema audiences.” – Daily Mail
But how does this mimicry fit with our audience’s real desires?
Recently, I spent a day at the 10th Student Television Network Convention, where 2,200 visiting filmmakers were simultaneously shooting movies in downtown Los Angeles. High School students and their teachers from all across America competed in a digital short-form movie slam. The entire Hotel Bonaventure was filled with young camera warriors tasked with writing, shooting, editing and delivering a movie in 14 hours.
I was invited there by students from the Magnolia High School and their Teacher of the Year Trina Martin, all of whom I’d sought out in Houston because I was curious about their ingeniously perceptive insights. I found these teenaged students’ courage and enthusiasm to dive in and tame our medium bracing. It reminded me of my own youthful passion to cast spells with film.
It was exhilarating to stand in the vast ballroom at the Bonaventure, filled wall-to-wall with an ocean of students poring over computers, crafting sound and imagery to their will. Let me admit that my relationship with Final Cut Pro is in a word—embarrassing. But watching these young people using Final Cut Pro—cracking good!
Here was Hollywood’s audience of today and the filmmakers of the future all gathered. And these talented kids were only the tip of the digital iceberg. This generation is the most visually literate and technologically empowered in history. Electronic image-making is now standard at all high schools. Imagine the thousands of undiscovered Spielbergs and Bigelows all inventing new ways to enmesh us in their creativity.
Do I believe our business can keep inducing them to watch re-treads and sequels forever? When they’re mastering the craft of the medium themselves? And for virtually no cost? Answer: Nope.
“The very essence of the creative is its novelty, and hence we have no standard by which to judge it.” - Carl Rogers
I first came to Hollywood as a young Oscar-nominated moviemaker from Toronto. I was very lucky; Norman Jewison mentored me here, and the Canadian government paid my way. John Watson also joined me in founding Trilogy, and, thanks to Jewison’s reputation, we were given access to high-level people at the studios.
What fueled us was our curiosity over one question: How does one create a hit?
We discovered studios had marketing analysis people who tested films on real audiences to help tweak and launch them. We persuaded Willette Klausner and Richard Del Belso, working for Universal at the time, to let us buy them lunch with the ulterior motive of picking their brains to unlock the secrets from their studies of audience reactions to hundreds of movies: The Holy Grail to filmic success. So, over the salads, we popped our burning question: “Considering you guys test the audience reactions to every movie that gets made here, what works?”
Their answer was simple: The audience wants movies that are “new, interesting and different.” Their testing systems told them that communicating novelty and creating curiosity were major components in bringing an audience to a movie. Their testing revealed that audiences crave originality.
And I think this applies not just to movies.
Neurobiologists have peeked inside our brains with MRIs and have discovered that novelty is a fantastically powerful stimulus, and the more novelty, the more we seek to explore it as a reward in itself.
Change is inevitable and intrinsically human. Change means the regeneration of life, the exploring and discovering of life’s mysteries and the solving of long-pondered problems. We like to see fashions change. There would be no book or music bestseller charts if people just read the same book over and over. And why do we feel obliged to wrap Christmas, birthday, wedding gifts etc. in a covering of expensive wrapping? Un-wrapping gifts, unveiling statues, pulling back theater curtains to reveal the stage, keeping a guest off-stage until we have announced them … All of these point to how important discovery, novelty and curiosity are.
But, most of the time, the studios don’t like to put their balance sheets on the line for what’s new, interesting and different. It feels safer to justify selling genres that seem to have worked already. I call this rear-view mirror thinking.
“‘I’m going to do the stories I want to do.’ And they’d say, ‘Well the public wants this or that.’ And I always said, ‘If you knew what the public really wanted, you’d be billionaires, all of you.’” - Loretta Young
Making movies that are clones means diminishing returns. It’s tough to create excitement and to reward the novelty experience with movie ideas that’ve been run round the track a dozen times and are so threadbare the only way to excite an audience is by throwing giant sums of money at them. We creators are supposed to be the visionaries of the future. Repeating the past is awfully close to that oft-used definition of insanity.
Some dull days, I do get worn down and give in to the “Give ‘em what they want” impulse. But then I remember that three studios turned down my pitch for a revisionist Robin Hood as “uncommercial.” But my partner John and I wrote Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves anyway. It went on to become one of Warner’s biggest grossers that year.
Albert Einstein said many wise things, but one of my favorites is: “Imagination is more powerful than knowledge.” We don’t need vast sums of money to make great movies, just imagination. A movie like Paranormal Activity shows the logic of that.
The secret is to apply that same imagination on how to the sell the original and the different. The late Steve Jobs at Apple was a master of exploiting this. I can’t think of a single name as the Steve Jobs of film distribution. Our industry could use a giant dose of that old-fashioned curiosity-creating thing called showmanship.
How many times have you seen a trailer that reveals every plot element of a movie, leaving you to wonder if you still need to see the whole movie? That is not showmanship. It is panic.
We need more marketing people with the courage and vision to sell original work! As filmmakers we need to encourage our marketers to be impassioned by fresh ideas, by novel and original stories. Not every movie succeeds, but what’s the greater experience—failing at making a Xerox copy, or aiming for the future?
I once saw Frank Capra speak. The thing that struck me, despite his age, was his excitement for the art of film. He said we had yet to see the Leonardos and Michelangelos of our medium. Believe me: I think they are coming! I may have met some of them at Magnolia High School. The next generation is going to push our storytelling boundaries even farther.
We need to prepare the path. How? By being equally daring and perceptive so that we not only recognize them but we commit our full sense of curiosity and enthusiasm to selling their work.
To read more of Pen Densham’s storytelling wisdom, go to www.ridingthealligator.com.