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Tell Me a Story
June 18th, 2013

Steven Spielberg is predicting the end of movies

Actually, if we want to be slightly less inflammatory about things, he’s predicting the unsustainability of the current film business model.  Apparently, we – the movie-going public – are a fickle lot, and it’s hard for studios to predict what we’re going to like.  This makes it difficult for them to determine which projects they should spend $200 million to make (like the Iron Man franchise), and which ones they should not (ahem, cough, John Carter).  At the other end of the spectrum, it’s also hard to foretell which smaller films are worth making.  As an example, Lincoln, which was a huge hit with both audiences and critics last winter, nearly ended up on HBO because studios weren’t sure what audiences would think of it. 

Spielberg believes it’s inevitable that one of these years the studios will release their big spring/summer high-budget films and they will all flop.  And the studios will be forced to change their paradigm.  As The Huffington Post explains, “Hollywood has waded into increasingly tumultuous financial waters in recent years, as an explosion of competing media options has divided consumers’ attentions — and their wallets. Movies themselves, meanwhile, have become more expensive to produce.”  Given the fickle nature of movie-goers studios are only willing to spend big money on films they think will draw big crowds, and comparatively small sums on films they are less sure of.   So we’ve ended up with a vast chasm on the movie continuum – high-dollar action films and shoestring indy films with almost nothing in the middle ground.

Call me crazy, but I think I have a solution to this problem:  just tell me a story.   

Yes, we love to shovel popcorn into our mouths at break-neck speed while watching things blow up in front of us on a giant screen.  But if we don’t walk out of the theatre feeling connected in any way to what we just watched then it probably wasn’t worth our time (and definitely not worth our word of mouth).  Perhaps they are fun, diverting, and ooh- and ahh-worthy, but we don’t need stunts and explosions and aliens and high speed chases to make it worth our while to go to a movie in droves.  We just need a good story.

This doesn’t mean that movies have to be slow and moody and indy-ish.  Three of the biggest hits of past few years were Wedding Crashers, The Hangover, and Bridesmaids and they were all raucous, off-color, and hilarious.  They didn’t involve big special effects or otherwise huge production budgets.  But we loved them anyway because they told great stories.  And if your taste leans more toward the, well, tasteful, then the same goes for Lincoln and Slumdog Millionaire and The King’s Speech.  The value of a story holds true for action films as well – we wanted more and more of Jason Bourne because he was interesting in addition to being a bad-ass.  (Even 007 has become more interesting in the post-Bourne Identity Daniel Craig era.)

In looking at the some of the most-loved movies of all time, very few of them hinged on special effects alone.  Citizen Kane, The Godfather, A Few Good Men, and The Shawshank Redemption still captivate us because we care about their characters and what happens to them, not because they are eye candy.  And even the ones that are – Indiana Jones, Titanic, and The Dark Knight – gave us both action and plot. 

I’m not campaigning for a wholesale industry transformation to Merchant Ivory films.  But please tell me a story that I will care about.  A happy one, a sad one, a funny one, or even a (slightly) scary one.  If you tell me a good story I will happily pay $15 for a ticket, $9.75 for a box of Milk Duds and a fountain Coke, and $40 for a babysitter.  But you have to tell me a really great story.  Otherwise I’m headed straight to whatever book is on my nightstand.

2 Responses to “Tell Me a Story”

  1. anne Says:

    Well, you were correct! I love this post. You know, it wasn’t all that long ago that they could throw Will Smith in front of a bunch of aliens, have it directed by Jerry Bruckheimer, and make a gajillion dollars. But that formula has died. I think you’re right-on about story. Hubby and I recently purchased the box set of Indiana Jones movies on Blu-ray and have been watching them. And let me tell you…those special effects seem SO LAME now. But the movies rock because they do tell great stories that make you want to dive into some popcorn and just disappear. I think where it becomes confusing are the exceptions. How, I ask you, have there now been 5 “Fast and the Furious” movies? Why does “Saw” keep getting made…and making money? I think that’s where studios are just totally baffled. But all in all, audiences are getting more savvy, and we know when we’re being fed the same old crap with an A-list star.

    Have you also noticed that some of the best movies to come out in recent years are also KIDS’ movies? I practically fell asleep during Iron Man 2 because it DRAGGED, but was in tears by the end of Toy Story 3 because it told a succinct, great, relatable story and because of the writing. That is, I think, the other thing that separates successful movies these days. As TV viewers, we’ve been spoiled by shows like Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The West Wing, etc because the writing is SO DANG GOOD. So when we’re told to stomach sub-par dialogue (for a $10 ticket), we don’t care if it comes in a fancy special effects package. It’s still just bad. We’d rather be home with Netflix.

    And here’s another tangent which doesn’t really pertain to your core argument. Sorry. I will add one more needed component to the summer action movie franchise. Awe. Old-school, “gee-whiz that was awesome!” kind of awe. While I admire that movies like The Dark Knight and even Iron Man have raised the bar on what we expect from an action movie, I also kind of miss the days of happier action fare. The kind of action movie that I haven’t seen a thousand times, that makes my eyes go wide, and makes me both laugh and cover my eyes. The Mummy, for crying out loud, achieved this. As did the Goonies, as well as Super 8 (from a couple years ago). (Ironic that it was basically an homage to Spielberg). Maybe what I’m talking about wanting is ADVENTURE. Escape…not just superheroes being emotionally tormented. Because isn’t that what summer is all about? Escape.

    But yes…STORY. Good writing. Original plotlines. And fewer bells and whistles. Great post.

  2. Gale Says:

    Anne – I didn’t get into the incredible writing that is being done for TV right now because I wanted to keep this post to a readable length. But I definitely thought about it. Some of the amazing shows on right now are a little dark for my taste – Sons of Anarchy, Breaking Bad, Walking Dead, etc. – but I can still appreciate that there’s some incredible creative work being done right now. Even a few of the mainstream comedies are turning out incredible material right now. We’ve definitely moved past Thursday night “Must See TV” and into a realm that competes much more aggressively with big-screen productions.