May 18, 2010

Concerning the Next Decade: An Open Letter to Hollywood

May 2010

N Highland Ave & Hollywood Boulevard
Hollywood, CA 90028

Dear Hollywood Producers, Writers, and Directors,

I write to you at this critical time on behalf of the worldwide movie-going public. They have not requested that I write this letter, but the situation is urgent and, selfless hero that I am, I accept that it is my duty to save the world of cinema using the judicious power of this blog. Maybe you'll make a movie out of my story one day. You have a lot of bad ideas like that, actually, which is why I'm writing this letter.

The American movie industry is, depending on who you ask, either in the midst of a record-breaking profit bonanza or an apocalyptic creative crisis. You obviously know the former to be true as you are currently being read this letter by your assistant, who works much harder than you give her credit for and who doesn't have the heart to tell you that the eco-luxe boutique lodge she just booked for you in Koh Kood lacks an on-site acupuncturist, or that the Maserati dealer just called to let you know that the platinum gear shifter you requested won't be available for two more months, or even that the organic wheatgrass smoothie you're drinking right now isn't actually organic.

Indeed, in spite of your obscene wealth you really do have a lot of the daily inconveniences and problems that wear us plebeians down on a daily basis. I'm not sure how you cope, but for relief from life's boredom and pain many of us head to the comfort of our local movie theater. There, we find ourselves presented with a variety of new releases each week provided by you and your peers. A few offerings are worthwhile but most are offensively bad - not that you would likely know, since the only thing you're watching is your bank account balloon as our hard-earned dollars pour in.

While it may seem that we're gladly willing to eat up whatever you put in front of us like a herd of goats, the truth is that a.) we're actually paying you this money before we see these movies, and b.) a greater number of people than you realize have much more discerning taste than you realize. You're missing their money, and I want to help you get it. That's right - I understand that cinema is a business; this is not a pathetic plea for you to act altruistically or sacrificially for the greater good.

What I'm proposing is a mutually beneficial arrangement in which you earn even more breathtaking profit by producing films that even more people are interested in. Honestly, do you want to just continue to ease past box-office records, or do you want to completely obliterate them? Because let me tell you, a lot of people with money are freely spending it elsewhere while you desperately try to find the next cash cow franchise that you can milk year after year, sequel after sequel. It's hard work finding the next Harry Potter or Twilight series, isn't it?

Well here's the best part - getting our money is not nearly as difficult as you would imagine. I'm going to lay out here a set of recommendations as we together embark on this new decade in film, and I can assure you that your profits will immediately increase directly proportional to the number of these that you implement. Er...they might. See, these run directly against everything you're currently doing - I'll tell you that right off that bat. But you can't keep doing what you're doing forever (mercifully, something has to change at some point or we would be awaiting The Matrix Reincarnation and Police Academy 18 this summer), so why not get ahead of the game and float these ideas to your peers at your next money-counting party, or whatever type of social function you regularly attend.

Our suggestions are as follows:

1. Stop it with the superheros and spontaneous sequels. Might as well get the most controversial proposal out of the way first. Look, I'm not against the concept of sequels and I admit that some (e.g., The Empire Strikes Back, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Toy Story 2) are just as good as their preceding originals. Most of the time, this is because the films were meant to be part of a trilogy, such as The Lord of the Rings or even the Harry Potter franchise. Aside from those, you have little justification to make a sequel to this year's Valentine's Day, or yet another sequel to a stale franchise like Men in Black or The Nutty Professor, or additional Superman and Daredevil and Spider-Man and Iron Man sequels.

Fact is (and you've admitted as much), a good half of the sequels you're producing these days aren't even planned in advance. You might get a surprise hit (e.g., The Hangover) and try to wring as much cash out of it as quickly as possible, or you decide it's OK to dust off a decades-old franchise (e.g., Indiana Jones) and make an easy profit while adding nothing of significance to the film industry or the culture at large. In both cases it's all about making more money, and in both cases we as consumers get nothing but two hours of fluff in exchange for said money.

Superhero movies have been an easy way for you to justify five or six sequels to a movie (after all, they never run out of villains with whom to battle), but if the recent "failures" of Kick-Ass and Watchmen showed us anything, it may be that many casual superhero movie fans are growing tired of the trend. I mean even you must be tired of it by now, or do you honestly look forward to producing Spider-Man 8 at the end of this decade? I bet you can't even tell the difference between the backstories anymore, and yet you are already developing The Green Hornet and Thor and Captain America and Nick Fury and the first of what will probably be several movies about The Avengers.

Please, give it a rest and try something new. You don't have to risk a $100 million, either. Simple math will prove that spending $150 million on a superhero blockbuster that you hope will gross $300 million in its brief shelf life will not net you nearly as much as a $30 million movie (albeit a bad one) that will gross almost the same amount thanks to the old-fashioned method of "word of mouth". Focus on producing those movies, rake in the cash, and then leave them alone. Please, leave them alone. You can't make a sequel to The Blind Side no matter how much you desire it.

2. Allow the cracks in the glass ceiling to become holes. Last year, for the first time in more than 80 years, a woman won an Academy Award for directing and an African-American won an Academy Award for screenwriting. People talked about the "glass ceiling" being shattered, but I don't buy it for a number of reasons that I won't go into here. It's true, however, that some additional cracks were made in the glass. Ideally, over the next decade those will develop into holes, and eventually the ceiling will come crashing down. But it will take years - too many years, unless you take some risks and/or simply allow it to happen. I mean really, we both know that the unspoken truth in Hollywood is that you're all a bunch of white guys.

There's nothing wrong inherently wrong with that, of course, but it becomes a problem when you're trying to entertain a public that increasingly isn't represented by people like you. We (and by that I mean both Americans in general as well as the international audience that you desperately seek) are not all white males, and in addition to seeing more movies starring people like us, we'd like to see more of them made by people like us.

I'm telling you that you're missing out on an ever increasing amount of money from a public that has an ever increasingly easy way to find very specific entertainment niches. If you don't believe me, go ask Tyler Perry. So instead of being left on the sidelines, why not bridge the cultural gap? Have more women make romantic comedies. Rid your movies of the stereotypical stock characters that will only continue to ruffle feathers. Make space for and put your marketing support behind "small" movies like Better Luck Tomorrow, ATL, QuinceaƱera, Amreeka, and Night Catches Us. Trust me, you'll soon be the hit of your next money-counting party. 

3. The 80's are so...1980. Leave them alone. I've observed that pop culture trends are collectively driven by a variety of highly influential and creative individuals between the age of 35 and 45, including many of you in show business. At least that's what I figure since everything around us in the last decade was a retread of the 70's and everything around us in this young decade so far has heralded the return of the 80's (beginning in 2020, I'll be in the sweet spot of that group and we'll celebrate the 90's).

You can see the 80's returning everywhere - fashion/color/clothing/hair trends, music trends (welcome back to the synthesizer and saxophone!), television, food, and, of course, film. Just this year you've excitedly prepared for us Hot Tub Time Machine, The Karate Kid, Wall Street 2, The A-Team, Predators, Piranha 3D, Red Dawn, Footloose, Ramona & Beezus, and Tron Legacy. There is hardly a more outrageous and yet more lucrative concept in Hollywood these days than making us pay to watch movies we've already seen. So what do you already have lined up for the next couple years of this decade? A remake of Short Circuit, or Little Shop of Horrors, or RoboCop, or Conan the Barbarian, or Ferris Bueller's Day Off? Or how about Top Gun 2? Ghostbusters III? Beverly Hills Cop IV? Wow, I'm so excited I don't know what to do with myself. Oh wait - I'll just watch the original 2D versions on VHS!

I get it. A lot of you Hollywood hot shots are in your 40's and are desperate to turn back the clock (Exhibit Z: the upcoming Adam Sandler/ensemble comedy Grown Ups). But do we really need to put this much effort into completely recreating the past when what exists in its original form is still awesome on its own terms (and yes, I'm talking about something like Top Gun)? The answer is resoundingly no. 

4. Agree to disagree about 3D. Congratulations, you've found a method of making 30% more profit on each ticket sold that is so easy and limitless in its potential that it should almost be criminal. Well I've got bad news for you - 3D doesn't work for everybody. Or at least it doesn't work for me (or Roger Ebert). I can see static images with no problem, but when you make an action film in 3D and keep the camera in the same frame for less than a second, well it all becomes a big fuzzy mess. In 2D, I found Avatar to be a visual feast - lucid, fluid, crystal clear and like nothing I'd ever seen before. In 3D, I found Avatar to be a blurry headache, in and out of focus and so distracting that I would go minutes without hearing any dialogue because I was so focused on just seeing straight. Why pay $5 more per ticket for that experience?

Now if everyone had my problem with 3D (and it's been the same problem for all films I've seen in 3D, most recently Alice in Wonderland), you wouldn't be making such breathtaking profits. But - and this is a big but - I think you are crossing the line when, as I read recently, you are contractually forcing theater chains to show your films in 3D or not at all. By not leaving at least some of us with the option to see films in 2D, you'll simply lose a lot of our money while you gain only a little more of everyone else's. Please, leave the option open to the theaters and don't force me out of the game with a fake IMAX 3D version of a movie I just want to see in good old-fashioned 2D.

And for the sake of propriety let's just set one more rule in place: the only 3D films that are being produced at this time should be produced using James Cameron's new technology. Even though it didn't work for me, I know that what he did with Avatar should be the new standard, if only out of professional respect. If the 3D-loving public knew what was good for them they would pay for nothing less.

Respectfully, and on behalf of the worldwide movie-going public, we ask you to seriously consider these ideas. They won't guarantee profits in the short term, but over the long term and as the economy evens out and your assistant who is reading this to you moves on to a better job, they might just be your path to even greater riches.


The Undersigned


  1. "You obviously know the former to be true as you are currently being read this letter by your assistant, who works much harder than you give her credit for and who doesn't have the heart to tell you that the eco-luxe boutique lodge she just booked for you in Koh Kood lacks an on-site acupuncturist, or that the Maserati dealer just called to let you know that the platinum gear shifter you requested won't be available for two more months, or even that the organic wheatgrass smoothie you're drinking right now isn't actually organic."

    Lol. Great stone breaking.

    "What I'm proposing is a mutually beneficial arrangement in which you earn even more breathtaking profit by producing films that even more people are interested in. Honestly, do you want to just continue to ease past box-office records, or do you want to completely obliterate them?'

    They are going to go with the safe beat. e.g. Sequels, Superhero movies, movies with name recognition, whether they are from the 80s or not.

    Point 2.

    The only reason the director of The Hurt Locker won the oscar was because she was a woman and her winning made for a great story. If Cameron had not made that comment during his oscar win for Titantic, "I'm the king of the world", he would have won, hands down. Richard Roeper (his interview with Howard Stern) is right. Cameron's direction and innovation ushered in a new phase in directing with 3D digital and shooting films entirely in that medium. The Messengers, Brothers, and Avatar all had better storylines than The Hurt Locker.

    BTW, Resident Evil: Afterlife was shot with Cameron's new tech.

  2. BTW, Resident Evil is the fifth movie in the series that began with, and includes around 12 video games, depending on which ones you count.

    I for one, am stoked for the trail brazing innovation of Resident Evil 17.

  3. "They are going to go with the safe bet. e.g. Sequels, Superhero movies, movies with name recognition, whether they are from the 80s or not."

    Come on, don't give up that easily! Victory must be ours.

    I wouldn't go so far as to say the *only* reason Bigelow won was because she was a woman (had it been directed by a man I still think nominations would have been awarded), but there did seem to be an odd kind of sexiness/sexist/gender issue at play as the Oscars neared. Personally I'm happy for her, even if I don't see her wins as ushering in a new era just yet.

    Interesting theory about Cameron, too. He must regret it - here you have the two highest-grossing movies in history and yet your reputation is stained by (among other things) a terrible line you wrote and then repeated to a worldwide audience.

  4. Well if I'm going to remain reasonably true to our pleas here I have to allow for those Resident Evil sequels as an example of a planned franchise. That Cameron's technology is being used is also encouraging news.

    Funny thing about those video game movies is that soon enough the graphics and in-game movies are going to rival the films themselves. It will all be a fluid game-movie from screen to screen.

  5. Victory won't be ours because the money will be theirs, at any cost. Sorry. Their making Pirates of the C 4. Cha-ching.

    Okay it was not the only reason but it was the main reason. If that had been a male director, Cameron would have won.

  6. Well victory may be theirs but the money will remain mine when it comes to Pirates 4. ;-P

    Bold as you are about Cameron's missed chance, I have to agree.

  7. Thank you for this, you brave, brave person.

    Though, to be fair, the best protest we can give is not see any of these shit movies, not comment on them on our so-very-influential blogs, and pretend they don't exist.

  8. I hope this ridiculous 3D trend dies soon. Didn't 3D used to be something for which you'd make a special film that was intended to be viewed in 3D? I remember the audience reaching out to try to touch things as they burst out of the screen. Now, you have to pay extra to kinda sorta feel like the scene is popping out at you a little bit. It doesn't really add much for me and I'm not willing to pay so much extra for it, but it's getting hard to find a place that's showing it in 2D and convince friends to see that version instead.

    My husband has ptosis (drooping of the eyelid) which means he's unable to view films in 3D. If he doesn't buy the 3D glasses, the film looks all weird 'cause it's meant to be viewed with them. So now we're paying extra for something that he can't really see and I don't really care about. Every time we want to seek out the 2D version we have to explain all of this to everyone who might go with us. Seeing movies is now a pain in the ass. Thanks Hollywood.

  9. Thanks for stopping by, Simon. Your suggestion makes the most sense of all, and I admit I'm too easily distracted by Hollywood's shock and awe blockbuster campaign. Plenty of people don't know anything about Iron Man 3 or Clash of the Titans and live very fruitful lives. It's easy enough, and I'm gradually finding it easier to look past all of these.

    Katie, I have the same memory of reaching out for things at Captain EO at DisneyWorld in the 80's. You're right, the purpose of 3D has changed entirely from an every-once-in-a-while trick in movies to a every-frame-has-to-be-in-3D standard, which kind of defeats the purpose. It would be much more effective if it was tampered down a little bit. Or a lot bit.

    That's unfortunate for Dave (though he's really not missing much in my opinion), and like you I'm worried about the increasing difficulty in just seeing a movie in 2D. It didn't seem to be an issue with Avatar as it was widely available in both formats, but more and more the studios are requiring theaters to upgrade and pushing 2D screens out entirely because the profit margin is so much higher with 3D (single tickets for Shrek Forever After in 3D last weekend were upped to $20 and then back "down" to $19 at a theater in Manhattan).

    I know a lot of people love 3D and wouldn't mind watching a TV drama in that format, but personally I'm hoping for a consumer uprising against it...

  10. Addendum: Per point #2, see also this.

  11. Film-book dot com, your reaction to point #2 is exactly WHY we need to emphasize and shout from the tops of buildings and plaster over billboards point #2.

    I don't really care why Bigelow won quite honestly. Lots of white men win awards because they're white men. But no one bothers to notice because...they're white men.

    The reality of Bigelow's award doesn't negate the NEED for there to be more and more and more women and people of color in the director's chair.

    I plop down $250 every year for a gold pass to our local international film fest precisely because there are far more women directing films internationally (at our film fest, women usually direct 20-30% of the films) and of course far more people of color are telling their own stories.

    Iran produces more women directors than Hollywood does. Daniel is right. Hollywood is missing the boat on this one.

  12. Good points all, Jeanne, and isn't that an ironic fact about Iran?

    I think this fall's Night Catches Us will be a good case study in what we're talking about. It's a powerful film that won raves at Sundance (and by me at MSPIFF) for its portrayal of post-Black Panther Philadelphia. It's not an instant classic or even one of the best films of the year, but it's just as good, if not better (and more meaningful) than any other small movie that you'll find at your local independent cinema (most of which, let's be honest, are about narcissistic white yuppies).

    My point is, if it were made by Spike Lee or by Craig Brewer (who is white and directed Hustle and Flow) or by Lance Hammer (who is white and directed Ballast) Night Catches Us would probably be a buzzed about movie championed by the indie press (or at least the Spirit Awards/Film Independent). But it's not - it's made by an African-American woman, and my admittedly cynical prediction is that it will come and go without receiving much attention at all, because, you know, people aren't entirely comfortable with that, are they? And there's not a lot of money to be made by these movies outside of "urban" markets, isn't that right?

    We shall see.


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