Saturday, May 30, 2015

Celebrity vs Integrity: Why Genre Films Need Fresh Blood

It goes like this: When creating a new world and/or universe as it relates specifically to a film, it is better suited to utilize lesser-known actors than A-list talent.It might be helpful to break down the primary genres of films before we break down my theory. The four umbrella genres, as I like to call them, are Action-Adventure, Comedy, Drama, Documentary and Western. Every film ever made falls into one of these categories.  Then we add the sub-genres, which are so varied that filmmakers add sub-genres to the sub-genre until it so convoluted no one knows what defines a films genre. So for the sake of this article I'm going to eliminate a few and focus on the most common sub-genres: horror, racing and sci-fi.

Well, Hollywood is at it again. They canceled yet another long anticipated film because a completely unrelated film tanked at the box office.  While the poor performance of Tomorrowland has absolutely no correlation what so ever on the fan favorite Tron, the latest installment of the popular franchise has been canceled.  

Ok, looking at this simple box office comparison it’s easy to see why studios pulled the plug.  I get it. CHAPPiE- another robot sci-fi with a hastily built world- hasn’t made it’s budget back- yet.  Tomorrowland was Disney’s big bet to compliment their futuristic theme park exhibits and compete with, well itself, considering six films being released this year belong to the Mouse or its subsidiaries. Forbes breaks down a financial hypothesis that makes it easy to guess the probable future for Tomorrowland that does not look promising.

I have not yet seen Tomorrowland (or CHAPPiE), so I cannot comment on their quality. I can compare them to another recent sci-fi flop- Jupiter Ascending. Tomorrowland and Jupiter Ascending have A - list  Oscar winning talent, bulging budgets and horrific ROI for their studios. CHAPPiE managed to score a modest budget for a studio film, but unless it kills it overseas, the return future looks grim. 

Three sci-fi flicks, three new worlds heralded by celebrity talent- three major “flops” in less than year. If I were a studio suit, I’d look at the films on my roster and start slashing too. 

But I have this theory.

You see, genre films tend to have a very rabid fan base. Those fans have certain expectations, and their expectations are very different than the suits sitting behind a green light at a studio. There are elements unrelated to the caliber (read celebrity) of talent in the film that fans expect and demand. These expectations have everything to do with world building and story, and rarely rely on the talent in the roles. And by talent, I mean celebrity (they still want them to have some chops). This reality crosses genres. It is true for horror films, westerns, sci-fi, and racing.

Lets start with horror. Even if you’re not a fan, it is probable that you've seen at least one. The one you've seen is also probably one of the most popular. The Birds, for example, remains one of the most classic horror films in history. Tippi Hedren had exactly one film under her belt before she landed the iconic role. Jamie Lee-Curtis only a handful of side roles and forgotten characters before Halloween.  The 1984 Nightmare on Elm Street was Johnny Depp's first role. Maybe you want a new one? Ok, Cabin in the Woods. Sure, Thor is in it. But he wasn't Thor when he made it. In fact the scheduled release was AFTER Thor hit theaters and Chris Hemseworth became an “overnight” sensation. On the flip side, Bradley Cooper had ten years and The Hangover under his belt while Renée Zellweger had an Oscar in hand by the time they did Case 39. And nobody cared.

Racing movies. Oh, racing movies. These also fall under action-adventure, and almost always involve and actual race of some sort. They are enormously popular because racing is hugely popular. One of the most lucrative is the Fast & Furious franchise. No one could have guessed it would spawn a series, but it did. It also turned three of its cast members into stars, two into mega stars. Paul Walker had shown up previously in two films and even managed to grace the poster art. Pretty as he was, he was still second fiddle to Joshua Jackson in Skulls and James Van Der Beek in Varsity Blues. Vin Diesel had a minor role in Saving Private Ryan, and voice work on Iron Giant before he became known world wide as the brooding anti-hero Domenic Torreto in the Fast & Furious chain.

The Mad Max franchise sits on some critic lists as a horror film, but is resolutely aimed a gearheads and action fans. The current installment has two established and known actors who can command a small audience on their own, both with an average box office draw of only $40 million or less on average. That tells you something about the appeal of the universe it sits in when as of this writing, it has pulled in $239 million. The original Mad Max… well it was America’s introduction to Mel Gibson and what became one of the most lucrative action film careers of the 80’s and 90’s. What’s interesting is that the Mad Max’s universe of a world gone to hell apocalypse, also classifies it as a sci-fi.

Sci-fi, or science-fiction if you’ve been living under a rock, is probably the broadest spectrum of genre films out there. Studios only think in terms of the last successful sci-fi they’ve had or wished they had, so their definition depends on the year. Fans on the other hand know what sort of sci-fi they like and tend to be ruthlessly loyal to it.  

Traditionally, it means space travel and aliens (Star Wars, Star Trek TV series, Aliens). Sometimes it refers to experiments gone wrong (Weird Science, The Fly). On occasion it embraces technological evolution where machines become smarter than we are (The Matrix, War Games). Harrison Ford, Leonard Nimoy, William Shatner, Sigourney Weaver, Robert Downey Jr., Jeff Goldblum, Gina Davis, Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, and Matthew Broderick are just a few of todays Hollywood elite and were virtually unknown before they were in the films mentioned above.

Then along comes Tomorrowland. It falls squarely in the sci-fi category- but fails the audience’s expectations to be transported to Oz, er- I mean Tomorrowland. The resounding response of critics and fans alike is that Brad Bird’s latest film is more a lack luster climate-change piece than a thrilling sci-fi adventure into a brave new world.

Sci-fi fans expect to see inside the Matrix, they expect to travel to the galactic core and visit Tataouine. The fans/audience expect these worlds to be specific, fully developed and integral to the story. Earth and Asgard are uniquely tied, but Chris Hemsworth was not Thor before Asgard was built.

In the 1982 Tron, the audience was zapped right onto the Grid. Computer graphics were new to film, and if it had failed to make the audience believe they could be transported into a computer system, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation. It did work and it changed the game for movies.  

Nearly 30 years later, we zap right back to the new and improved “bio-digital-jazz” of the Grid.  Both Jeff Bridges and Garret Hedlund  had a handful of films under the belts previously, but were still relatively unknown when they took their roles in Tron (Bridges) and then Tron: Legacy (Hedlund). Their star power had little sway over the universe that was built. Subsequently, the success of the films was built on the fans love of Tron and the grid. If the studio understood that, they might not have been so quick to pull the plug on a film that made 25% gross profit.

This is why the absence of a star or celebrity is actually beneficial to a genre-film attempting to establish a new world. Clooney is a popular and talented actor. Its almost impossible to see him as anyone other than Clooney with the exception, possibly, of Daniel Ocean (they're basically the same person, right?).

It’s like high school, the same five kids in the leads, you stop seeing the characters or the play. You only see the actor so that is what you focus on. If they can’t carry the material, you notice. When the actor is unknown, you focus on the character, the story and the world surrounding them. If it’s done right, we experience one of those rare moments where you get to be completely immersed in the film from beginning to end. And if it's good on top of that, well... It could just be the star making vehicle audiences have come to know and love: read, successful ROI.

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