May 16, 2009
May 17, 2009

What were they thinking? – The logic behind Hollywood's crazier decisions

The major Hollywood studios are some of the most successful businesses in The World. Every year they make hundreds of millions of dollars not only by making their own movies, but also by distributing the movies made by their competitors. Although the business model is almost a century old, and is currently being challenged by the rise of internet piracy, these companies continue to make money hand over fist, in good economic times and bad.


Despite this Hollywood is also home to some of the most ridiculous ideas and business practices know to man: Whereas most businesses take great pains to improve products within a range with each iteration; over and over again studios run their own franchises into the ground with poor quality, straight-to-video sequels. In the same vein, this is an industry that on numerous occasions has had two studios release similar films within months of each other, and despite a history of almost complete failure keeps trying to adapt video games into movies.


Frequently the decisions made by Hollywood studios are attributed to incompetence. Whilst occasionally it may be the case that somebody’s fuck-up is the cause of internet ire, more often than not, it’s not incompetence, and behind almost all decisions is a distinct thought process.


While almost impossible to know for certain why someone chose to turn The Dukes of Hazard into a film, or to let Uwe Bol near yet another film set with a little bit of lateral thinking we can form hypothesise for why these things happen.


Take, for example Brett Ratner. Not only is the guy hated by fanboys all over the internet for his awful X-men sequel, but both Rush Hour 3 and After The Sunset have barely made their budgets back in world wide gross, and yet he keeps getting hired as a director.


While some may put this down to him selling his soul to the devil it’s more likely to do with  the fact that he takes notes from studio executives and willingly acts on them, rather than debating them for the sake of ‘artistic vision’. It’s the same reason that relatively unknown directors are often allowed to direct major properties


Catherine Hardwicke, Tim Story and Chris Weitz were put in charge of Twilight, The Fantastic Four and The Golden Compass respectively. While each of them had made an impact from previous films, none of them had any box office clout, allowing the studios to bully them into essentially being sock puppets.  Ratner and his contemporaries are no different. They might be the best directors on earth, but they’re willing to do as they are told, and because of that, they’ll keep being re—hired, and we’ll all keep bitching about them.


The problem of similar releases has been plaguing studios for decades. This year Paul Blart: Mall Cop and Observe and Report were released within a few weeks of each other. In previous years we’ve had Armageddon released within two months of Deep Impact and A Bug’s Life barely a month after Antz. And it’s not just a recent phenomenon; this has been going on for decades. Barely a year after MGM released Ben-Hur in 1959 Universal gave the world Spartacus, and between June 1939 and February 1940 two biopics of Abraham Lincoln were released: Young Mr. Lincoln and Abe Lincoln in Illinois.


There are a few reasons for simultaneous releases. Obviously it could be put down to out and out plagiarism. The Asylum, a straight-to-DVD production company and distributor specialise in making knock-offs that are released to capitalise on the success of blockbuster films , and it’s true that studios follow trends, which is why a few years ago we had a glut of children’s fantasy films, and we’re now experiencing a comic-book-movie craze, but it seems unlikely that the larger studios would deliberately risk commercial failure, and even possible litigation by releasing an identical film to their competitors.


It’s also worth taking into account the time a large studio movie takes to make. Many of them spend years in development, around three months in principal photography and then six months in post. For the bigger films this can be even longer. Even if a major studio decided to make a rip-off of a competitor’s film as soon as it had been greenlit it would be difficult to release it within the timeframe of the films mentioned above.


The long gestation period before a film is made may however be the best explanation why two similar films reach the cinema at around the same time.


Scripts often circulate around Hollywood for a long time before they are made. They go through multiple writers and even more rewrites. Sometimes these rewrites are actually greenlit, most of the time they aren’t. Those scripts that don’t go into production may well be cannibalised by their writers into a new spec script, which will then also do the rounds. Ultimately two studios may well end up developing two separate scripts that have similar themes purely by coincidence.


It is conceivable that these projects could be well into their development, and have received a vast amount of funding before either studio finds out about the existence of the other’s project. At this point they may simply decide that it’s better to go ahead and make the movie rather than write-off millions of dollars.


Of course as well as making films from spec scripts, studios frequently make films based on existing properties. There are many reasons behind this, although one of the primary reasons is brand recognition. By using an existing property, already known to the public, studios can increase their chances of a commercial success.


In recent years some of those properties optioned bare little resemblance to the finished films. The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise can be forgiven for differing from the simple narrative of the theme park ride, but there are many films based on properties with a strong story and well developed characters that barely resemble their source material. Catwoman and Wanted both made a selling point of the fact that they have little to do with the comics upon which they are based. Similarly the characters in the Starship Troopers franchise barely even share the names of their literary counterparts.


It could be argued that the brand was used to help sell the films, but the fact that Catwoman was a flop and that both Wanted and Starship Troopers were somewhat niche properties would dispute that, so why buy the rights? In the case of Starship Troopers they were bought during pre-production, and the original title of the film was Bug Hunt at Outpost Nine. Although it’s still possible these rights were bought for the sake of brand recognition it’s just as likely the production company bought them to either avoid potential litigation, or to reduce the risk of a similar film coming out around the same time.


In the case of Wanted and Catwoman it is likely that the changes came about due to the script going through a large number of writers, and a large number of drafts. Even if each new writer only deviated slightly from the previous version, the script would cease to resemble the original draft very quickly.


There are also commercial pressures on a script. Many films are shown to focus groups before their release. In response to the comments from these focus groups the films may be re-cut. Some films like Star Trek may have only one or two scenes cut out, while others, like Fanboys received heavy edits before release. Even if they aren’t shown to a focus group films are often altered on the instructions of the studio so as to appeal to a particular target audience.

In addition to these considerations the film has to go before the MPAA ratings board before it can be shown in cinemas. Because of this there is always pressure to tone down the more extreme acts of violence from the original source material. It’s no surprise then that many film adaptations differ so much from the original source material.


There is a similar practice, particularly with historical adaptations, of making a relatively faithful adaptation, but changing characters from the original versions. An early example of this was The Great Escape. The film is loosely based on historical events, but many of the characters are composites of the real men involved. The same technique was used in 21, and in the fictional The Cider House Rules.


In those instances the decision to use composite characters was to simplify a complicated story into a narrative suitable for film. In many cases though, character changes aren’t just a case of creating a composite. The recent use of Deadpool in X-Men Origins: Wolverine typifies this, using the character name, and then altering the character to suit the story.


Taking what we know, though, this could well be a product of multiple drafts of a script being combined into one. In one of those drafts the character of Deadpool could have been a faithful rendition, while in another there could well have been a new character that embodied all the traits we see in the final product. These could then have been combined for the sake of either brand recognition, or simply to de-clutter the script, removing extraneous characters, without losing important plot points.


The problem with this explanation for the change in Deadpool’s character is that the studio had already discussed a spin-off film with him as the hero. While a few alterations from the comic incarnation would be sensible for the spin off, the iteration of Deadpool in Wolverine is both a villain and all-powerful. If there is to be a spin-off film the writers will have to back themselves out of a very large corner.


It’s likely that tentative plans for a Deadpool film were in place long before principal photography on Wolverine. That said most of those plans would have relied on the success of Wolverine. On top of that most of the creative team involved with Wolverine, including the writers and producers, are unlikely to be involved with the Deadpool film. Even for the studio executives Deadpool would have been an afterthought. The prime concern would have been the success of their current picture.


We tend to think of studios as an incredibly well disciplined money making machine: a nest of ants working towards a common goal. In reality it’s not that simple. Most senior executives in the studios have spent years working their way up, but one bad decision, with millions of dollars of someone else’s money, could cost them their job. Consequently when an executive makes a decision there’s as much chance that it’s more of an exercise in arse-covering than in money-making, and it’s certainly about making the current project a success, regardless of it’s effect on future films.


Interestingly, this point, that decisions aren’t made for the greater good of the studio, but for the preservation of careers applies to all of the ridiculous decisions Hollywood studios make.


The reason they hire directors who have been critically lambasted and commercially unsuccessful over and over again is that they are known commodities. Never has the idiom ‘better the devil you know’ been more apt than when an executive hires a director. Even if that director makes a terrible film the executive is more likely to keep their job than if they’d hired an unsuccessful unknown.


The principle is also a reason behind why similar films often come out simultaneously. Suppose for a second you are a studio executive with the power to greenlight a film, and you find out that another executive in another studio is about to make a film with remarkable similarities to your current project. Given the amount of money already invested in the project you can’t cancel it, so you make the best of it.


In fact this potentially terrible situation could help your career. If the film is successful you can claim that you had the confidence in your project to support it even in the face of direct competition, and if it’s a failure you can argue that you were right to commission it, and by the time you found out about the other project yours was past the point of no return.


That’s not to say that the other reasons outlined earlier in this post aren’t equally valid. Most decisions are a combination of these factors, but the fact that studios are made up of a huge number of self serving individuals is often ignored by commentators trying to analyse trends in Hollywood.


It’s not just these cases either. Apart from the brand recognition factor, one of the reasons there are so many adaptations and remakes is that for an executive, if someone else has already signed off on a property they have an instant defence when their film under performs.  


It’s even more prevalent with sequels. Despite anomalies like Spider Man 2 the law of diminishing returns usually applies to films in a series, and with lower expectations comes lower risk.


This may seem like a terribly cynical way of looking at the industry, but it is realistic. While it may not benefit the industry, or even their employers the fact that studio employees are looking after their jobs is a function of an industry with a vast and highly qualified talent pool to draw upon.


While graduates are fighting for work as tea-boys and thousands of people are chasing hundreds of jobs the emphasis on employees will always be to avoid making mistakes rather than to take risks. We can’t change this fact. It’s the nature of the industry, but it is worth bearing in mind when trying to comprehend why a film doesn’t meet our expectations, or a studio comes out with yet another ridiculous idea.