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Red Colony
Scientific American

Modern Movie Making - the Art of Selling Out

May 14, 2003

by Andrew Dupuis

Millions of people charge their local theater every week to catch the latest multimillion dollar film which advertisers promise to be violent, sexy and appealing to as many demographics as humanly possible. Making movies in this day and age has become less of an art and more of a way of squandering moviegoers out of hard earned money. Advertisements (commonly known as trailers and TV spots)as well as publicity, a huge lack of risk taking with regards to content and direction and an emphasis on special effects over dialogue and actors have all become major problems with movies in recent years.

Modern day film advertising is primarily about selling an image, which more than often is not the one which the actual film is trying to promote. Advertisers have editors create trailers and TV spots which appeal to as many people as possible, fixating on one small part of what is a much larger and (occasionally) satisfying whole. Although advertising is a principle source of revenue for films, itís not done with the grace and elegance like it should be. Advertisers are dreadfully afraid of showing signs of originality, as they have no idea as to how the average viewer will respond to it. The trailers which lead into the feature films which pay to see give viewers hope for entertainment in the following weeks. The sad reality is that the advertisements never match the expectations which the viewer is anxiously awaiting. Sure, there are times when intelligent filmmaking slips under the radar, but their success just is not comparable to that of the pre-determined blockbusters which are eagerly awaited each year. Where "important" movies with huge budgets can afford to spend millions of dollars on advertising campaigns, other pictures which may even be classified as independent have to rely on critical response and word of mouth for a healthy life at the box office. The most ironic thing about film advertising is the best advertisements end up coming from the least original movies where the more thought provoking and intellectually stimulating films have confusing and utterly uninteresting advertising. An example of this could be the 2000 movie, "Wonder Boys" starring Michael Douglas, which was a great movie which received wonderful reviews, but Paramount studios did not know how to promote the movie. "It had a really strange poster; no one could figure out what the film was about." commented Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan on the movie. It is easy to understand that movies are investments and need to earn back money which is spent on making them, but there should not be a point in wasting the money if the movie will not entertain the audience of offer them anything new or intelligent. Advertisers are extremely smart and persuasive, more than often they know exactly what to say in order to have a set audience locked for a film which actually is not geared towards them in the first place. On the list of the top ten grossing films ever in the United States, eight of the ten movies were younger than nine years old each of which had a massive ad campaign and were hugely anticipated for that vary reason. Back in 1999 it was impossible to turn on the television without being bombarded by advertisements, tie-ins and sponsorships for the movie "Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace" and it did not let up until people finally went and saw the movie. Now people are about selling an image. Advertising is not about selling a movie to an audience because itís smart funny or even mildly entertaining, but because it brings in a paycheck, there is little risk involved past the initial investment.

Unlike even just a few years ago, it is noticeable that directors, producers and studios are simply not taking as many risks as they should be anymore. The box office numbers are about popularity not quality and just like in society people tend to alienate or ignore those who are different but eventually every movie finds itís audience. Movies like "Donnie Darko", "Memento" and "the Godfather" barely put a dent in the box office when they got released in their respective years. Now "the Godfather" is commonly known as the greatest movie ever made, "Memento" and "Donnie Darko" are appreciated because the people involved in making them actually cared about making something original and also referred to as two of the greatest cinematic achievements in recent years. Throughout the years, movies have progressed largely, but not positively. Violence, sex and coarse language are now common place in movies and this often detracts from the overall picture. The point which the filmmakers are trying to get across is often lost under the blood and guts, consistently dirty language and often gratuitous sex and nudity. "Whatever," they often say, "it sells tickets." One big moral dilemma which surely most directors, editors, producers and studios avoid is showing realistic affects of violence which have been perpetrated on screen. Some viewers do not understand that violence equals pain and people forget to express this idea in cinemas quite frequently, whether it is sheer stupidity on the filmmakers behalf or for some other unexplained reason, it will remain a mystery. Then there are movies which are filmed, go to the M.P.A.A.(Motion Picture Association of America) where the film is given a rating based on itís potentially offensive content. Often studios object to the rating they receive and decide to take the movie to the cutting room and censorship ensues. If a movie loses a few scenes[sometimes only a few frames(milliseconds)] it becomes accessible to the younger audience, mostly films ideally want to go from the Restricted rating the teen friendly PG-13 rating which guarantees a dramatic increase in revenues. Many films are guilty of this and it can lessen or heighten the impact of the movie. "A Clockwork Orange" and "the Godfather" would not have been the same movie if their content was censored, because it would not have matched the intentions of the director and weaken the impact of the movies and their messages. There is no reason to have so much blood and violence in most movies especially action and horror movies which use violence to such a high degree that itís sickening. Although most directors of today do make movies (rather obviously) just in order to get a pay check there are still people out and about who are not allowing for a studio to tell them what to do. Examples of this select group of individuals who keep the film industry fresh and alive include: the Wachowski brothers ("the Matrix Trilogy"), Darren Aronofsky("Requiem for a Dream"), Brian De Palma("Dressed to Kill", "Femme Fatale"), Martin Scorsese("Taxi Driver", "Gangs of New York"), Alfred Hitchcock("Rear Window", "Psycho") and Stanley Kubrick("2001: A Space Odyssey", "Eyes Wide Shut"). Among the most openly creative writers and directors of the past decade is Kevin Smith, who openly talks about his failure to conform to studio pressure and keep his original intentions intact. In a documentary covering his visits to a few universities in the United States he discusses his opinion of and personal experiences with the film industry and he throws jab after jab at the industry. He confirms the suspicions of the audience that he does not give in to studio pressure concerning the content of his films, Dogma being a prime example as the studio he was originally involved in totally disapproved of the content of the film which was later released to many angry protesters and has become somewhat of a cult classic since itís initial release. Smithís recommendation to up and coming new directors is to finance their first film independently, "even if that means fraudulently obtaining a bushel of credit cards to pay the bills. Itís ultimately more satisfying than becoming a studio whore." Itís nice to know that some people do make movies purely for the love of doing just that.

Possibly the saddest thing about modern cinema is the fact that actors are now taking a back seat to the special effects which have become the stars of the show. Modern moviegoers appear to be more interested in seeing movies which have a strong dependency on special effects, where every one of the top grossing movies of all time where special effects were essential to how the movie was played out. George Lucas is a key example of this, where his last two films have taken place in worlds completely created of CGI, there are actors present who have nothing around them except their own imagination. The final result is that the acting in "The Phantom Menace" and "Attack of the Clones" was that the performances are similar to that of an unrehearsed high school play. Not all movies with special effects have horrible acting, writing and direction, unlike "Phantom Menace" and Attack of the Clones", there have beenmodern movies being very successful in all of these categories such as the recent slew of comic book adaptations like "X2: X-Men United" and "Spider-Man" which use special effects merely to bring a part of the story to life, they are not essential to how the story is told, both movies deal with topics true to society today, just in a different fashion which is slightly more entertaining and equally well written. Ironically, although these movies do bring in the most money, they donít fair as well with the Academy Awards and audiences who appear to enjoy realistic drama and suspense to fantasy and action. The Academy Awards realizes and gives credit to films which set their focus on characters rather than a "green screen"(screen used so special effects can later be added). Occasionally there is a blend of the two seemingly opposite sides and contradictory sides of the spectrum but they never end up taking home that golden statue for the "Best Picture of the Year" award. It always ends up finding itís way into the hands of the movie which has the most fascinating characterizations. This is why movies like "Chicago", "Gladiator", American Beauty" and "Shakespeare in Love" win against movies like "Lord of the Rings" and itís sequel(which are especially the only movies which of the past decade to be nominated for "Best Picture" and also have an emphasis on CGI). The "Lord of the Rings" films have a multitude of characters who are never fleshed out, and that removes their chances of winning the Oscar but never hurts itís take at the box office. Seeing characters who viewers donít know or care about fight mean looking monsters who would give Freddy Krueger nightmares appeals to people and acts as entertainment. Viewerís tend to storm local theaters to be entertained by mindless popcorn flicks, but those who spend their money on more serious genres of film end up having a greater admiration for the profession.

Advertising and publicity, a fear of taking risks and an over abundance on special effects are all factors leading to the decay of filmmaking as an art form. The extinction of intelligent movies will not be coming anytime soon because there are people who are genuinely interested in making movies purely for the love of making movies. Thatís too little too late though, for every "Memento" that gets made there are a few dozen unfunny Eddie Murphy comedies, for every intelligent and original movie released in 2002, there was an unhealthy helping of brain dead movies which one could easily believe were mass produced. The movie industry is best thought of as a zombie movie from the 70s, where the ones fending for survival are intelligent and creative, but surrounded by zombies who are simple minded, determined and want nothing more than the money of the viewer and to eat their brains. Thatís Hollywood though, it seems that the only way to succeed is to sell out and compromise your hopes and aspirations, in Hollywood one just fails upwards.


28 Days Later



Donnie Darko


Resident Evil


The Crow

The Lord of the Rings Trilogy

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

The Matrix: Reloaded


Terminator 2: Judgement Day

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines

Total Recall

X2: X-Men United


Modern Movie Making - the Art of Selling Out