Greetings, all you tenacious fans of The B-Movies Podcast. Welcome to our weekly followup article, B-Movies Extended, wherein I'm going to do little dilly-dallying, and confront you with a question:
Have you ever felt tricked?
Not just that you were disappointed in a film, or that you feel it was misrepresented in the advertising. Have you ever felt that the film's marketing campaign and fan buzz actually misled you into thinking a film might be good? It's happened to me a couple of times, mostly with big-budget summer blockbuster type movies. I was not only let down by the film, but I felt that the studio itself had suckered me with clever ads, nice looking actors, and the promise of cheap thrills. This went beyond mere criticism of the film itself. This led to a sinking feeling of disconnect with the film world at large. Has that ever happened to you?
The first time I can distinctly remember being tricked was when I saw Lara Croft, Tomb Raider back in 2001. Here was a film that looked to be like a fun, Indiana Jones-type adventure, with plenty of spelunking, delving into ancient cultures, and looking for old and impressive-looking artifacts, all while dodging centuries-old booby traps that still work to this day. Such stories are rarely played for plausibility, but most can be forgiven for their sense of fun and genuine adventure. Lara Croft had none of that. It was silly beyond enjoyment, and the booby traps were implausible even for pulp standards. Angelina Jolie looked nice in the skimpy outfits, but wasn't a wide-eyed adventurer; she seemed to be a steely and stern buzzkill. I felt like I had been lied to. That the studio knew this film was going to let audiences down, but sold it anyway.
This is, of course, an objective experience. Not everyone felt the same way I did about Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. Indeed, some people claim to enjoy it. More power to them, I suppose. It's rare indeed that there is a majority consensus about a feature film. For every solidly beloved classic in the world, there will be detractors, and for every flop, there will be defenders. But, after seeing so much mediocre Hollywood pabulum, it's tempting to form theories about grand conspiracies intended to keep audiences stupid. In my more paranoid moments, I've gotten the sense that there is a secret cabal of tastemakers, sitting around a Thunderball table somewhere, chuckling wickedly to themselves, choosing which horror to unleash on an unwitting public next, testing sadistically how little we're willing to put up with.
I know that the making of every film is typically a long, hard, expensive and arduous process, so this is only a paranoid fantasy. But, well… What if…?
On the last episode of The B-Movies Podcast (which was, if you can believe it, number 46), William “Bibbs” Bibbiani and I talked briefly about the prospect of Grown Ups 2, the sequel to the little-talked-about-and-yet-hugely-financially-successful 2010 Adam Sandler comedy. We both sort of rolled our eyes, and didn't dwell too much on the details. Neither of us saw the original Grown Ups and were, frankly, not very much moved to. But, in our discussion of this news, I was reminded (and I brought up) a recent theory posited by the critics over at Red Letter Media. They saw the recent Adam Sandler film Jack and Jill, and were extremely puzzled as to how such a cheap-looking movie could cost a reported $79 million. Their theory was that, thanks to all the obvious product-placement, the film's budget was artificially inflated to allow for Sandler and his friends to be overpaid, and the actual production of the film was actually rather meager. This can't really be proven (unless Sandler openly admits to some sort of malfeasance), but this form of “blockbuster fraud,” if you will, does sound plausible, doesn't it?
So maybe there is something to the theory that Hollywood is conspiring to keep us distracted with dumb movies. It's no big secret that Hollywood rarely overestimates the general intelligence level of America. Sure, there are some intelligent films that occasionally become hits, but as we've talked about in B-Movies Extended before: it's bad movies that tend to make the most money. Is it condescending to think that people don't really, honestly love the movies they see in the millions? Maybe they do, but surely they recognize that The Smurfs is not great by any definition. No, I prefer to give people the benefit of the doubt, and believe that it's the producers and advertisers that are tricking people into seeing the drek, and who are intentionally steering people toward the dumber fare.
(Not that there isn't a place for dumb movies. There are dozens – if not hundreds – of perfectly dumb movies on this planet that I simply adore; I often find myself rushing to the defense of Super Mario Bros.)
Audiences, of course, can't know how a film is until they've paid for it, and therein lies the simple problem. A big opening weekend has less to do with the film's actual quality or word-of-mouth approval, and more to do with however much excitement an advertising machine can produce, and how many people can be duped into seeing it in a given three-to-five-day span. A big summer blockbuster will cast familiar and talented actors, assemble a crack crew, spend millions on state-of-the-art special effects, allow actors to talk up the film in interviews, arrange visibility at conventions, tap into perhaps-familiar adapted source material, and try their hardest to work millions into a frenzy of excitement over a film they haven't seen yet. All of these people will buy tickets for the film, and before they've finished watching it, the film's financial success is already accruing. As a result, we have studios planning big-budget sequels sometimes before the first film is even released.
I've always felt a good way to get around this simple problem is to theater-hop (that is, to pay for one movie and to see another, and not merely sneaking into movies, you little thief). But I know that's not practical for everyone. But the sad fact is, Hollywood is bilking us all the time. And we know it. And we let it happen. How often do we see movies “just because we're curious,” or because “everyone else is seeing it?” I've talked to younger filmgoers who ensure me that a film will be great long before they've seen it. Try convincing a teenage boy that the next Batman film may be a bad one. He will hear nothing of it. It's fine to be excited about seeing a film (I would never want to quell the riot of joy that looking forward to a big film can bring), but I'm also a critic who has to approach every single film with the same attitude of cautious optimism. I don't get excited about movies these days until after I've seen them.
How does one tell the difference between genuine excitement for a new film, and the artificial excitement instilled by a clever ad campaign? The answer is a simple one, and it involves asking a few questions of yourself: Why am I excited to see this movie? If it is great, will I be able to see that for itself? If it's bad, will I be hurt? Essentially, measure your excitement. There's also this: The Hollywood Machine is trusting that you'll lose yourself to some clever advertising and advance buzz. If you are excited about a film, be excited about the actual film, and not the hype surrounding it. See a film because you are genuinely passionate about it, and not because there's a cloud of noise. The film, ultimately must speak for itself.
Sorry if I've skewed a little too cerebral, but the idea of Blockbuster Fraud was too delicious not to talk about. See the films you want to see, and see them for whatever reasons you want, but, at the core, remember that Hollywood is ever so often grabbing at your wallet. You vote with your dollars. If you pay for one movie, there will be more like it. Keep that in mind when you're shelling out for Grown Ups 2, and know, perhaps somewhere deep inside yourself, that it will only hurt you in the end.
NEXT: Bibbs explains how this madness got started in the first place…
FROM THE DESK OF WILLIAM BIBBIANI:
There’s a big, fundamental disconnect, I feel, between the people who make movies and the people who watch them. The people who make movies want to make money. The people who see movies want them to be good. Maybe their standards aren’t as high as the typical snooty film critic, but they’re spending their (often) hard-earned money and want a reasonably good product in exchange. I’m going to use the royal “Hollywood” when I make these generalizations, since it’s a perceived trend and not an essentialization. I’ve met many industry folks who feel differently about this, particularly directors, writers and other creative types, but “Hollywood” just wants your money. It’s a particularly painful thing for young idealists to accept when they enter the industry, but making a good movie is often a secondary consideration at best. If Hollywood can get you into the theater, they’ve done their job. If you happen to like the movie, that’s just a bonus.
Before the dawn of home video this was probably a smart plan. With occasional exceptions, people were only going to have an opportunity to see a movie once, so tricking them with fancy posters (cheaper to make than a fancy movie) and exploitative gimmicks like nudity, gore and cameos from slumming celebrities got them to the theater. If audiences didn’t like the movie, they would probably suck it up with an embarrassed caveat emptor. Sure, they could ask for their money back, but that’s a socially awkward prospect. You have to tell some kid with a soul-sucking summer job that you’d like your money back, wait for them to shamefacedly tell their manager, and then explain to the manager that you didn’t like their product. Often they’ll remind you that they didn’t actually “make” the movie, forcing you to side with them momentarily and admit that they’re right, and wonder if getting your money back is really worth the trouble. You don’t see that kind of forced death march at Home Depot. If your pruning shears don’t work to your satisfaction, you take them back, show a receipt, and Bob’s your uncle. But since art is subjective, you almost have to humiliate yourself by admitting that you’ve screwed up by choosing the wrong product, and that you now want the theater’s charity to make up for it.
But I digress a bit. The point is, if you didn’t like the movie back before home video, the theater and studio already had as much money as they were going to get and the odds were slim that they’d have any kind of serious financial backlash afterwards. These days, when many films make their money back on home video, this mentality seems flawed. Surely better movies, or at least more entertaining ones, are the way to go, since you want people to buy them on Blu-Ray after they’ve seen the theatrical release, and digital download, and whatever’s going to come after that. (Come on, holograms…)
Human beings, I have observed, have two contradictory qualities: 1) They are terrified of change, and 2) they adapt very quickly. People fight tooth and nail to prevent things like desegregation, women’s suffrage and gay marriage from becoming socially acceptable, but once they happen (gay marriage obviously needs time) everyone sort of relaxes about it, and within a generation they become a new status quo to be defended at all costs. Hollywood is fighting tooth and nail against changing their ways, particularly when they can still get away with pumping out inferior or at least mediocre product and make a living at it. They can get away with it because of things like product placement and advance foreign sales. Product placement is the practice of including name brand products prominently on camera, and accepting money from the company that produces said product for their trouble. It’s a little shady, but perfectly understandable so long as they don’t shove your face in it, like Dunkin’ Donuts and The Royal Caribbean Cruise Line did in Jack and Jill. Advance foreign sales involve selling a movie to other countries based solely on a cast and/or marketable premise, quality be damned. This practice can be so lucrative that many movies, even perceived box office bombs, have already made their money back before they’re done shooting. So why bother making it good? That takes effort.
So the marketing department kicks in, often aware that the movie is sub-standard, and does their job to the best of their abilities. They’re responsible for getting butts in seats, and to do that they often have to resort to some manner of trickery. You know the classics: showing all the good scenes in the previews, cutting to isolated shots of hot chicks in the trailer montage, reminding you that it’s “From the makers of [INSERT POPULAR FILM HERE],” and so on. At one point or another, I think we’ve all been tricked into seeing a crap film by an excellent marketing campaign. But movies sometimes suffer a backlash from this. I recall the opening weekend for X-Men: The Last Stand, where that truly awful sequel earned over $122 million in its first weekend thanks to a marketing campaign that promised more than the film delivered. I remember having conversations with certain people who said those numbers were an adequate defense of the film, implying that people liked it. And I remember feeling a certain amount of Schadenfreude the following weekend, when it dropped about 70% to earn just a little over $34 million, coming in second to The Break-Up. Marketing gimmicks only get you so far. Once audiences actually see the film, they tell their friends what they thought about it. From personal experience, I can tell you that the recommendation of a trusted friend or associate means more to me than all the trailers in the world. Do you feel the same way?
Again, this is another reason why we have film critics. It’s a little surprising that publicity departments even have press screenings anymore. If the movie is good, then Bob continues to be your uncle, and word of mouth spreads. But critics are free to tell you that the movie sucks an unconscionable amount of balls, which can be detrimental to the publicity department’s goal. I foresee a day when they cut us out of the loop altogether, which will mean that every critic has to pay the studio to see the film and won’t have a single Friday free for the rest of their lives, since we’ll have to sit our butts in the theater all day and churn out reviews all night. God, that’s going to suck for us.
Still, it sucks more that there are so many excuses to strive for mediocrity like, again, Jack and Jill, which I honestly cannot believe we are still talking about. And I have to write about it again soon. That “Worst Movies of 2011” list isn’t going to write itself…