With North American movie attendance in decline and ticket prices on the rise, movie studios are more concerned than ever with trying to maintain relevancy in an age of post-cinema motion-picture and television entertainment and declining home video sales. Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and even AOL have all begun to produce their own content in an effort to bring in subscribers, often at the expense of the archaic studio-to-local theater model. More than ever, Hollywood has tried to pursue “safe bets” or films with a proven fan base to encourage the inflow of investment and to continue to fill theater seats and studio purses. The studios figure the one thing they have as an advantage over the internet content providers is the old fashioned Blockbuster. Of course critics contend that Hollywood is not taking enough risk, and the idea of safe bets isn’t actually so safe at all.
When George Clooney set out to make The Monuments Men, he wanted to make a classic Hollywood style film about World War Two that showed the fatigued subject in a different light. Clooney has been an outspoken critic of the safe-bet model, criticizing activist investors for over-stepping their boundaries into creative decision making arrangements, often at the expense of creative liberty. In a rant in Deadline last summer, he scathed Sony investor Daniel Loeb for knowing nothing about the business and ruining the creative spirit that is responsible for so many jobs across the country. He continued to lambast Hollywood as a whole for focusing almost exclusively on reboots and safe-bet sequels. Sony Pictures is of course a co-financier of Clooney’s latest World War Two drama, having agreed to bank 50% of the roughly $75mm blockbuster. Filmed in Germany, popular with generous and liberal tax credits, the film seemed like a real bargain given its expensive premise. Only the film began to overrun its completion time in post production, requiring a set-back in its release date. Ultimately the film proved to be both a critical and financial failure. And this has deep implications for everything Mr. Clooney has criticized about the current business.
So what did George Clooney do wrong?
George Clooney and his Smokehouse Pictures family fell victim to exactly the kind of business model he was criticizing in Deadline. First of all, the World War Two subject is not fatigued. Clooney said in interviews that World War Two is often seen as a tired subject and that Monuments Men was a new spin on a familiar premise. He handicaps himself at the start by failing to imagine there are other opportunities and stories to be told in that time period. The Liberation of Paris, one of the most romantic moments in World War Two has barely been covered and is rife with potential for stories. In fact, a script I wrote covers that topic in a way that is entirely unique. When asked for the inspiration for Monuments Men he said he got the idea from a paperback novel he bought in an airport, and that it seemed like a cool idea. He may not admit to it, but it is far easier to achieve investment goals with an existing property like an airport novel than an untested script based on original ideas. The problem with this film is the story is not nearly as interesting in its execution as its premise wants you to believe. It was a boring film. There are no safe bets when your story is sub par, even if the property as in the notorious case of Man of Steel is Superman.
Hollywood fails to see itself as a part of the problem. Everyone in Hollywood is so quick to criticize everyone else for not being creative enough, for not being original enough, for producing too many sequels, reboots and movies based on existing intellectual property. Yet no one seems to follow through with their criticism. Clooney made a movie based on an airport paperback novel over countless available scripts submitted to the WGA every year. Whoever Mystery Executive is, and those like him, they clearly have failed to make an impact apart from catchy rhetoric. Of course there are investors that one is dealing with and the Wall Street shake-ups and executive shuffles do not help in remedying the problem of creative peril at the top. But it seems that “Hollywood” is always the other guy. Its always some other producer, executive or agent that is part of the problem. And much like the gender discrepancies in the business, nothing gets done because no one is raising the bar. The fact of the matter is, if you work in Hollywood, if you are paid by Hollywood studios, you are Hollywood. No excuses.
There are no safe bets in Hollywood. Consider the safe bet argument differently. If I am a financial adviser and tell you a particular stock is guaranteed to do well, it is a safe bet, I am breaking the law by saying so. If that stock for some reason under performs when I guaranteed that it would do well, I will be sued for misleading investors. There is no difference then in saying that about a film one is investing in. There are many things beyond a proven property that guarantee at least a shot at success. But nothing is more important to a films success than its story. People don’t go to a film and say “wow, such great CGI, I want to see it again!” People do however go to a film and say “wow, such a great story, I want to see it again!” Films like Forrest Gump are watched over and over again because it is a simple story that resonates with American audiences. Unfortunately Hollywood has grossly bloated the cost of making films with CGI at the expense of the importance of stories.
The sad part about Mr. Clooney and Monuments Men is that his heart was in the right place. Everything he said about the business in that Deadline article was spot on. Sadly, investors and those who control the purse strings in Hollywood will not look at Mr. Clooney’s film as an example of a failing business model and poor story. The investors will look at the piece and say with one broad stroke “this is why we cannot take risk on unproven and expensive period films.” The reason most Hollywood movies fail is because they just plain suck, not because they’re not Superman. You can only have so many Superman films before the record box office begins to decline as folks choose other more intriguing options. The small screen has proven again and again with original shows like Breaking Bad, Mad Men, House of Cards and many more that intelligent writing results in strong fan bases and audience enthusiasm. As a result, writers and WGA members are flocking to TV and Netflix, not Hollywood movie-making. It’s all about the story. And so I keep writing in spite of a hostile environment toward original material because I know that it is original material that will one day save this industry from creative peril, again. And I believe a lot of writers write anticipating the same. As I said last July, the film-finance bubble will burst, and it will burst because no matter how many super hero films you make, there are no safe bets in Hollywood, just like there was no safe bet in the bubble of home mortgages, tech-stocks, or tulip bulbs. There are no safe bets. Your financial success is only as good as the product you turn out.