‘Bad taste creates many more millionaires than good taste.’
— Hollywood by Charles Bukowski (pg. 94)
While discussing story ideas and concepts in our Film-TV tutes at uni, I’ve found one thing that came up a lot was the tastes of our tutors, and what types of films would be received well by them. Something I think most of us have realised, is that they all have different preferences and opinions when it comes to the amount of action, genre, and the kinds of characters involved.
There was one moment in Bukowski’s Hollywood that jumped out at me, as I had heard almost exactly the same example in one of the early tutorials.
‘It was all right to show how a person who had once been great or unusual was destroyed by drink. But just to focus on a bum drinking or a bunch of bums drinking, that didn’t make sense. Who cared? Who cared how they lived or died?’
— Hollywood (pg. 96)
Apparently people did care, because the novel is based on Bukowski’s experiences writing the screenplay for Barfly. An IMDB user review from John Seal states the film is ‘a character study that doesn’t worry about telling a story with a beginning, middle, and explosive end.’ There are just too many exceptions, too many fragmented audiences, and just enough people bored of the same structures and formulas. It’s why I greatly enjoyed Killing Them Softly while the friend I saw it with found the ending unsatisfying and anti-climactic, and they love the gangster subject matter, while I’m not a huge fan.
With all this in mind, it can be very difficult for producers and distributors to put their tastes aside and put themselves in the shoes of different audiences, no matter how much they’re paid for it. That said, it seems logical to suggest a highly original and interesting concept would be appealing despite these biases, but rarely do we see ‘chances’ taken in big budget productions destined for mass appeal. The focus on established franchises is symptomatic of this. Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Twilight, The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, every superhero known to man… and these get constantly rehashed and rebooted – apparently Hollywood thinks turning it off and on again will make it better.
It’s clear originality in Hollywood isn’t a prime reason to bring a story to screen. I suppose that was always self-evident, but it appears to be more so the case these days. Luckily, working on a lower budget production generally allows for a bit more freedom. $60,000, $4,500,000, $35,000,000, $6,000,000, $13,000,000 – these are the estimated budgets of Darren Aronofsky’s feature films according to IMDB, from Pi to Black Swan. Yes, this kind of money is a lot to the general public, but it’s a dramatic decrease from larger action adventure flicks. How about $9,000,000 for Memento (arguably Nolan’s best, or at least most innovative film), or $20,000,000 for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (which is reasonably effects-heavy).
These budgets are modest, but just to emphasise things, when Natalie Portman injured herself on the set of Black Swan, she discovered budget constraints meant they didn’t even have a medic. She describes her shock in this interview with David Letterman. I’d like to think she was joking, but nonetheless, it’s clear that they didn’t exactly have much money to spare on what was certainly one of the best films of 2010, and probably the decade.
‘“Before you take away a medic, take away my trailer” … and the next day I didn’t have a trailer.’
— Natalie Portman describing the implications of Black Swan‘s small budget.
I suppose the main thing filmmakers can take away from this is that these highly successful films benefited from not having to attract as large an audience as other, major productions. The return on investment necessary was much smaller, and this meant the filmmakers actually had a greater freedom to take chances and make the films they wanted to make.
Currently, in Film-TV 1, the focus is on technical proficiency, and understanding Hollywood standards and continuity is a good way to build that up. However, it’s important to think of them less as rules, and more as guidelines. Making films that push those boundaries and play with those concepts, is often a better way to approach low budget ventures, and extremely low budget is likely where most of us will start off, if we choose to go down that path.
‘Benh Zeitlin proves that to make a powerful film today, you don’t need gimmicks, a convoluted strategy, or even connections in the business. All you really need is a story so strong that it’s impossible not to make.’
— from an article by Ariston Anderson about Beasts of the Southern Wild director Benh Zeitlin.
I suppose it’s great that we’re being constrained in order to develop our technical skills instead of letting ambition take over, but I’m looking forward to opportunities in the course where we can attempt to make something distinct, because it’s the perfect context to experiment in.