The Way to Fix Movies

2016 was a low point for summer blockbuster sales, and while movies like The Fate of the Furious and Beauty and the Beast have fared well, 2017 does not seem to be doing much better. It seems as though more and more people are shunning the theater in favor of the couch, as streaming services are exploding in terms of subscribers across the globe. Even the Oscars are feeling the burn, suffering some of the lowest ratings in years. Movies are slipping. Now, on the verge of the second writers’ strike in ten years, is the time to think about what can be done.

Tell Superhero Stories Better

One of the issues with the current state of movies is that everyone is telling (or re-telling) the same stories over and over again. Since the turn of the millennium, there have been three Spider-Men, three Batmen, two Supermen, and eight members of the Fantastic Four. The model seems to be ‘if the last superhero movie bombs, get a new actor and re-tell the origin story.’ There are only so many times this formula can be effective, and it feels as though that limit is fast approaching.

There are still superhero stories worth telling. Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Legion all demonstrate the ratings and popularity still available in the genre. These programs do benefit from the ability to tell prolonged stories over many episodes, but at their heart is a factor that often gets overlooked in the current big screen efforts: writing. Deadpool was not the most successful R-rated movie ever because everyone was excited to see Ryan Reynolds look ugly for once. It was successful because it was well-written. The plot is essentially a run-of-the-mill origin story, but the dialogue and character development of the screenplay allow the movie to transcend the tropes that dog other superhero films. A focus and commitment to writing is what separates Deadpool from Batman v. Superman- a movie that had every aspect of the ‘big blockbuster’ formula except the benefit of good writing as a catalyst.

Superheroes have complex and beautiful stories to tell, and those stories are often only briefly punctuated by a fight with some bad guys. Movies today seem to focus on the opposite. The Avengers: Age of Ultron had a final battle scene that was over forty minutes long. There reaches a point where the viewer no longer cares about the six hundredth robot Thor smashes with his hammer. The concept that Ultron is bad and difficult to defeat is conveyed easily and quickly, yet the filmmakers insist on dragging the final battle out, thinking perhaps that because there are more heroes, they must take longer to win. The movie should have cut at least half of the final battle and focused more on scenes like the interlude in Hawkeye’s house or the party in Stark Tower, where the superheroes can drop their facades of the infallible paragon and interact as the human beings (or Norse gods, as the case may be) they are.

Tell Unique Stories

Picture this: a dystopian future where society is strictly managed by cruel yet attractive adults, and it takes the resistance of a brooding teenager and his or her band of misfits to bring them down. Also, there’s a love triangle. This story is so prevalent in the current state of movies that there are at least six options for which pre-existing film series that scenario describes. There is no wonder at the malaise of the current movie-goer when the only options are formulaic retreads of the same theme.

The answer does not have to be the avoidance of basing movies on popular books. Such practices have been keys to box office success since the dawn of film. The issue is not books driving scripts, but the types of books driving the types of scripts. Campy paranormal teen romance novels will yield campy paranormal teen romance movies. The focus of book-based films should be the telling of unique stories that break the traditional mold of summer tentpoles.

Studios making these switches assume risk. The films that could be made in these ways are not guarantors of success, but the opportunity for gain is present. The goal should not be to create the latest version of Harry Potter but to create something new with the potential of capturing imaginations in the same way as Harry Potter.

Be Content with One Film

Anchorman 2, Zoolander 2, and the upcoming Super Troopers 2 are all critical and sales flops (if Super Troopers 2 deviates from that prediction the world will no doubt explode). The poor quality of these movies goes so far as to decrease the pre-existing enjoyment associated with their originators. The clear money-grubbing efforts of the studios to churn out sequels to otherwise excellent stand-alone movies serve as an example of all the problems currently associated with the movie industry.

The unnecessary sequel is a destructive plague on movies as a whole and comedies in particular. The Hangover is a phenomenal story of a wild night of debauchery gone hilariously awry, whereas The Hangover Parts 2 and 3 are boring re-treads of the same premise to ever-diminishing returns. The incentive to create sequels (even, in some cases, ten years after the premier of the original) is obvious: capitalize on a movie’s popularity for a boosted profit margin at the expense of quality filmmaking. The studios cannot be blamed for these understandable tactics based on the bottom-line, but they can certainly be faulted for them.

Sequels can add to stories. They can bring new elements to worlds and characters that contribute to their overall richness, and they can drive powerful narratives across multiple films in a way that truly encapsulates the gravity of the story. These aspects of sequels only happen when the focus is on writing. The emphasis should be on studios to create films worth seeing, instead of the current effort to reuse popular titles on bland attempts to monetize nostalgia.

Take Notes from Children’s Movies

There are movies that succeed. Movies capable of telling complex, creative stories that touch viewers’ hearts and bring in money hand-over-fist. Movies like Zootopia, Moana, and Kubo and the Two Strings. Children’s movies have found a way to capture the spirit of what makes a film great, and they do so with talking animals.

The success of children’s movies calls into question the nature of filmmaking. Children are not overly impressed by stunning visual effects or computer generated characters, nor are they excited by the famous actor voicing the anthropomorphic emotion of Joy. Children are enthralled by movies with good stories and real emotions. When studios endeavor to make children’s movies they tend to focus on making a quality narrative in addition to flashy animation and big-name actors. Adults are more easily fooled.

Studios should attempt to make movies for adults in the same way they make them for children: story first. Booking the most popular name or having the biggest CGI budget should not be, in and of themselves, attractors to the theater. When people rushed to see Mad Max: Fury Road they did not do so because of the impressive lack of computerized effects, but because the movie was a fun romp through a new and interesting world. Similarly, the draw of Guardians of the Galaxy was not it’s amazing graphics or the selection of the wonderful Glenn Close as a minor character, but the fun dialogue and fully fleshed-out characters (the joy-inducing soundtrack also didn’t hurt). What children’s movies get right is they treat the story as the priority and the other “movie” aspects as supporting efforts. More movies would do well to follow this model.

Remember Why People Love Movies

The biggest way studios have dropped the ball recently is in their move to clearly focus on the bottom-line instead of the point of movies: to bring people an escape from their normal lives and engross them in a new world. People are increasingly turning to television as their source for this type of journey, but movies are still able to bring them back by focusing on writing, telling unique stories, and diverging from the business-driven practices that dominate the summer theaters, filled with famous actors packed into tedious sequels filled with unnecessary visual effects.

Damn it.
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