Thursday, 13 December 2012

Hollywood Babble On & On #974: What Sells A Movie?

If you've been reading this blog for more than five minutes you probably already know that I'm not a big fan of the star system. I think so called "movie stars" nowhere near the millions of dollars and associated perks they get paid, and now I have an academic who agrees with me.

Yeshiva University finance professor S. Abraham Ravid has studied the movie business for part of his upcoming book The Economics of Creativity, determined that star power is “is all but a myth,” and, as I been saying since almost the beginning of this blog “Stars can still sell magazines, but not movies.” (hat tip to Deadline: Hollywood for the quotes.)

Prof. Ravid has determined that a catchy "high concept" premise and a director with a good track record for making crowd pleasing movies sell better than movie stars, but stars are viewed as a form of insurance when selling "riskier" material like "R Rated" movies or pitching films to foreign markets. Ravid's theory is that the fear of failure in Hollywood is so much stronger than a desire for success so the powers that be are willing to shell out massive salaries to actors on the slim chance that their presence may attract someone no matter how bad the film is.

I still stand by my theory that internal Hollywood political machinations and peer pressure have their place in the formula that determines star salaries, but I do think Prof. Ravid's theory has merit. What I suspect he might have missed is that making movies is not like making cars, dishwashers, or even candy. The act of major studio level filmmaking has an isolating effect on the people who do it. The moment you walk through those studio gates you leave the real world behind and enter the Shangri-la of Hollywood which operates by its own natural laws, and very few of them are rational.

But let's get back to what really sells movies: High concept scripts and directors.

Now you hear a lot about "high concept" movies but very few people bother to take the time to explain them.  I will do it for you:

A high concept movie is a movie whose premise can be summed up in a tweet.

That's it.

Something that can be summed up very quickly with an element that will grab the attention of the audience.

For example....

A really big shark terrorizes a beach town in tourist season and the sheriff has to stop it. - Jaws.

A tiny creature, called a Hobbit, must save the world from an evil force by destroying the dark lord's magic ring. - The Lord of the Rings.

A farm boy must become a warrior to save a princess & the galaxy from an evil empire. - Star Wars.

There are two reasons why catchy high concept movies sell better...

1. If the audience wants deep drama, they can get it on television, especially cable, that outstrips the big screen in quality, quantity, and variety.

2. The audience really can only trust Hollywood to deliver big bombastic fantasy action adventures, or broad farcical comedies. Serious drama, or anything that Hollywood considers "edgy" has evolved into into a genre whose target audience are critics, film festivals, and academy voters. Anyone else need not bother trying to attend because the odds are they will either feel insulted, offended, or bored.

It wasn't always like this. There was a time when the audience and filmmakers were more in sync, and were willing to give a chance to serious or daring subject matter. But over time serious and daring became repetitive, and mostly were about reenforcing the prejudices and shibboleths of the Hollywood community over speaking any "truth to power."

Anyway, those are my thoughts, what are yours.


  1. Rainforest Giant here,

    So sex no longer sells? Eyes Wide Shut seemed to be the last nail in that coffin. Was Tom just trying to convince himself scientology was keeping those 'urges' at bay?

  2. sex no longer sells because we can get it for free in the internet.

  3. "A tiny creature must save the world from an evil force by destroying the dark lord's MacGuffin"

    = Any Tom Cruise movie.