Sunday, September 4, 2016

The Massacre of Summer '16: Why Ghostbusters Did Everything Wrong, or Five OTHER Hollywood Words You Will (Hopefully) Never Hear Again in 2017

I've kept a strict policy that I try not to talk about current movies on the blog unless absolutely necessary--Or at least unless there's some trend that we can all stand back and take a good long clinical observation upon.  I'm not just an Activist Without a Cause.
There are plenty of fan-blogs to wage schoolyard dodgeball contests over the current movies in theaters--some months before they open--and if I had simply put out a post the week the Ben-Hur remake opened in theaters saying "Well, what did you THINK was going to happen?--That we'd all suddenly realize Charlton Heston had been doing it wrong all these years, and feel sorry that he only had to race a real chariot instead of a CGI one?", it would just get lost in the rabble of other arguments.  That's how the slope always turns slippery.
And as our Labor Day holiday traditionally brings Endless Summer to a close, we can survey the wreckage (and watch Finding Dory come back to theaters, the same way that Finding Nemo survived the Massacre of '03 because we always come back to a Pixar movie when in doubt), and see what lessons can be learned.  Oddly enough, one key player seems to run throughout...

The Dictionary of Hollywood Summer 2016:

  • Reboot (n.): 1) A sequel that can enjoy the title-recognition benefit of being a "sequel" without actually having to follow any previous-film canon or bring old or stubbornly-avoiding actors back (except in vanity cameos), namely by starting the story over from scratch with whatever they can think of.  
2) A remake that can enjoy the title-recognition benefit of being a "remake" without actually having to follow any necessary accuracy to the original film, so long as they believe they look cool and homage some tribute to the one or two scenes of the movie they selectively fan-remember, and just plain make up the rest.  
3) A tribute to the original series that now comes up with a plot excuse--usually unreliable-narrator or time-travel paradox--why their new version is now "correct", and the better, more universally loved and established one that fans remember no longer exists, so there, now you don't have anything to complain about, nyeahh.  (See:  Star Trek, Terminator:Genisys, Alice in Wonderland)
The key definition is that a "remake" is its own entity, while a "reboot" believes that now that it's started things over, more is on the way.

It was the second-most heard complaint from audiences this summer (first was "Why so many superhero movies?", when they were usually just complaining about the bad ones from Fox and Warner):  "Why so many remakes and sequels?  Are the studios running out of ideas?"  The answer--No.  Ideas they got.  CONFIDENCE, they ain't.
It would take an entire additional column to retrace the evolution of how it happened, but studios today are literally terrified of risking money on a movie the audience doesn't already know walking in.  We recognize a sequel, we recognize a character from a previous movie, we recognize a pop-culture TV or book series, or we recognize the reboot/remake of a movie we associate with those Glorious 80's or early 90's when everyone still went to the theater...So whew, we already know what the movie's about.  No need to work too hard on the trailer or poster to do the selling, just let audience expectation do the trick.

What Ghostbusters Did Wrong:  Two things, actually--First, the reason movies were "better in the 80's", and why we had all that darn "nostalgia" in the first place, was because it was the days of optioning screenwriter concepts, which means writers could walk in with an idea nobody had heard of before.  And audiences could get movies they hadn't seen before.  When writers got a little too happy about their own marketability, and a name-screenwriter bidding-bubble erupted to try and break salary records in '88-'91, studios decided to drop one added expense that was making already expensive projects even riskier, and protect their investments on icons that sold themselves.  And, not coincidentally, wrote themselves.
Second, a sequel transforms into a "reboot" after it just can't get made for ten or fifteen years, due to abandoned scripts, stubborn/aging actors, or misfired sequel concepts, until the property changes producers and they decide to just flush the works and start over again.  In a nutshell, that's exactly what happened to Dan Aykroyd when he spent twenty years trying to get Ghostbusters 3 off the ground, with or without Bill Murray's stubborn refusal to be in it.  When Men in Black 3 showed that 3D could revive nostalgic stalled triquels from the 90's, Sony thought they could take over and give their problem child one more go, even after Aykroyd's options lapsed.  Which leads to...

  • Marvel-Style (adj.) - Describing the act of taking any two or three pop-cultural fan properties a studio may happen to own, creating a separate open-ended movie to introduce each of them, and creating an additional movie where they happen to meet.  And since these might each take at least two years to film, creating additional solo "spinoff" movies about the supporting characters in between, to fill in the space.
It's no secret why every studio wanted to do what Marvel Studios was doing--Their movies were following in the spirit of their print comics, in which we didn't so much grab issues off shelves to read an actual A->B story, as to follow the characters regularly in what serial adventure was happening to them this week, and knew what they were doing if they'd show up in some other hero's story.  Most of them lived in NYC, after all, and if Spiderman needed some help from Tony Stark or Daredevil, they might be just around the corner.
And that turned out to be the problem:  Marvel had already been doing it in said print comics for FIFTY YEARS.  They knew what they were doing.  They also created only one major universe for their characters to live in, so it would make sense that they would run into each other at some point...It's a small Marvel Universe after all.

Universal got a little overconfident because they had also been doing it seventy years earlier, when Frankenstein battled the Wolf Man, or when Bela Lugosi's Dracula wanted to put Lou Costello's brain in the Monster.  And because Toho told us fifty years earlier that Godzilla lived on Monster Island with Mothra, Rodan, and Minilla, which gave Warner a bit of confidence when they rebooted their new monsters. 
And soon, like any ten-yo. pushing two of his plastic dinosaurs together and going "rawrr!", studios soon wondered how any two random corporate-icon properties they owned could live in the same universe, and promote each other over the course of some larger united seven or eight-film arc.  If Universal says that Dr. Jekyll met special-forces soldier Tom Cruise, and they both fought the Mummy's Bride, well, who's to say it COULDN'T happen?
What Ghostbusters Did Wrong:  The next movies (assuming we ever got them) in what was now a, quote, "franchise" would tell us how the 'Busters could be called upon to help the survivors of the upcoming Jumanji reboot, stop all those monsters coming out of the Goosebumps books, and maybe even team up with the new Men in Black...It's a Sony World!  
Sony, if the Ghostbusters lived in R.L. Stine's world, why the heck didn't he just call them in the first place?  Oh wait, I remember--Because the linear sequence of movies hadn't been established yet.  It wouldn't be until 2018 or '19 that we would discover the film-by-film-by-film explanation of how they all met each other.  Have to take these things in stages.

  • Haters (n., pl) - Fans whose complaints, valid or invalid, can be instantly and publicly discredited outright by studio publicity if they don't happen to live up to the "Popular fan outreach" the producers had imagined for themselves on the marketing strength of the property--Since such people who would complain about a film before seeing it, just on the basis of a bad trailer or just plain danged crazy on-paper description, were clearly doing so out of ulterior motive to serve some fan-faction or rival-studio plot, or just being nasty like Those Kids on the Wild, Wild Internet will always do.  Haters Gonna Hate, and obviously live in trash cans on Sesame Street.  (Heh-heh.)
[See related definition on "Disney Conspiracy", the idea purported by disgruntled Batman and Harley Quinn fans that critics were clearly being "bribed" to like fun, fast-moving Marvel and Star Wars films, and warn people away from dank, dreary, overwrought Warner/DC films.  Apparently, under this theory, Disney spends all its "bribe" money trying to boost Marvel films to crush all pretenders to the throne, and thus had no money left to aid "The BFG" or "Pete's Dragon", which could have used it.]

What Ghostbusters Did Wrong:  Sony noticed the loyalty with which an angry fanbase tried to rally to the support of Batman v. Superman, and hoped that core 80's-nostalgic 'Busters fans would shout down any "meanies" who said that Bill Murray was funnier thirty years ago than any female comics, let alone Melissa McCarthy, could be today.  And soon enlisted all of the cast and director's pals to go on the quotable Internet to explain why the trailer's record-setting 'Net-hate on YouTube was just the work of "stubborn cellar-dweller fanboys", "misogynist women-haters", and "racists" who didn't happen to like Leslie Jones. 
Okay, here's the thing:  Just because 14-yo. fans get a pubescent thrill out of waging Internet fan flame-wars, out of raging wishful-thinking that a movie they were hyped to see was "good" when it wasn't, doesn't mean that 54-yo. Hollywood producers and directors can do it with their own movies as well...Join the 14-yo.'s on the Internet, and the world will think you're one of the 14-yo's., too.  And they may not be far off.  A grown studio exec should be concentrating more on the grownup ticket-sale bottom line of "Do not pick Internet troll-wars with your paying customers BEFORE they buy a ticket."

  • Out of Touch (adj.) - The wishfully-politicized view that if critics don't happen to like the same movie you do, well, it's only proof that they're from an older generation that doesn't understand current trends, follows outdated ideas and lives in an OUTDATED PROFESSION!  
And in 2016, Donald Trump was not the only one attracting loud crowds of angry, paranoid persecution-complexed fanatics who believed change could happen by all gathering in the same room to chant about how we should fix things by rounding up all the Bad People, sending them out of the country, and putting them all behind a big Wall where they would never have to bother us again.  The Gotham City fans who didn't want to hear that Batman v. Superman was getting low marks weren't exactly in an openly discursive mood either.  And like the Trump supporters who wanted their Wall, DC Comics fans wanted their followup Justice League and Wonder Woman movies, and would unite as an "army" to overcome whatever social obstacles stood in their way to get them...Get that guy out of the room!--No, seriously, we love our critics, they're wonderful people, but don't we wanna get rid of the old snooty ones who love those boring Sundance movies, and those loser wannabe-bloggers on the Internet?
After Suicide Squad was also slaughtered in the press, fan-petitions arose saying we should get rid of just for the majority of their critics giving a low score to Warner's DC Comics movies--And then tried to make the argument sound Important and Abstract (it's not just that bad-people hated Batman, you know!) by asking whether movie critics still had a role in the industry, or were just carrying on some "elitist" cultural relic of the 40's and 50's.  Can't we make up our OWN minds?

Well, true.  In our democratic society, there are many things you have the freedom to do. There is no law that stops you from smashing your face into a brick wall as many times as you like, and there is no policeman to tell you when it would be smarter to stop for your own good.  And if anyone does, our First Amendment does not compel you to listen.
However, the late Gene Siskel (or maybe it was Roger Ebert quoting him) summed it up quotably:  "The critic does not simply say he 'hated' the movie.  He asks 'Why wasn't it better?'"
And when we deal with movies on the grand studio-ambition scale as we got this summer, um, yeah.  Why weren't they?  Over the three years of time to work on them, didn't someone take the time and trouble to gauge audience reaction, and say that less money could be spent here and more trouble could be taken there?  Or did they just think the title icon would sell it?  For a business that claims to work so hard, the worst thing it can appear to do is be lazy.  Please don't shoot the piano player, he's only speaking the ugly Truth.
What Ghostbusters Did Wrong:  The "rallying cry" for why a remake needed to be made was that the Haters were clearly being motivated by angry personal misogyny, and that the movie needed to exist as a role model to our daughters, who might want to strap on a proton pack of their own someday--Don't listen to an isolated chauvinist voice of the Patriarchy, trying to preserve the status quo of a clearly glass-ceilinged industry!  Women can be funny, get over it!...You're wrong if you don't agree!

  • China (proper noun) - A country in Asia whose moviegoers have an abundant preference to see movies with amazing big-budget CGI effects, especially if the stories take place in fantasy, sci-fi or historical settings that don't reflect modern-day international issues or Western cultural references, and if they contain plenty of action scenes that don't need to be explained with lines of English dialogue that need to be dubbed and translated...And as such, can be counted upon to boost the business for bad overblown blockbuster epics that didn't do well on their home turf.
At least, that was the case with the movie that gave us one of summer '16's other major dictionary buzzwords:  Warcraft.  Apart from the above-stated reasons, it's hard to say why they liked it so darn much without going into snooty jokes about the moviegoing naivety of countries that can't afford as good quality CGI as Hollywood, or without making similarly ethnicist jokes about why the French liked Jerry Lewis or the Australians liked Yahoo Serious.  The studios are too blinded by numbers to consider that There Is No Accounting For International Taste.

In Warcraft's case, it may have just been the element of surprise given how badly it had performed at home, but also just timing--China, usually a little tight on its Internet, was only recently adopting Western computer games, and World of Warcraft was just becoming a big trend at the time.  Unlike the US, where most audiences had forgotten the 90's CD-Rom game the property was based on, and didn't want to see a game their parents played, just because it had CGI-enhanced armies of Orcs.  
The studios grabbed the wrong end of the stick and started beating the industry with it:  Even though the state's tight hold on theaters meant that capitalist studios would only get a small percentage from theaters (unlike the 50% or more they enjoy from US chains), they now believed that those faithful Transformers-loving Chinese would always come to the rescue of the entire blockbuster industry, and show those naysayers at home a thing or three.

What Ghostbusters Did Wrong:  The proud, progressive, gender-empowered producers, undaunted by the disastrous reaction they'd gotten at home, hoped that SFX-loving Chinese moviegoers would boost the box-office up to a cool international billion, and THEN who'd be laughing last?  
Unfortunately, someone forgot that China is a state Communist country.  They don't like the Masses being persuaded to believe in anything as unscientific as superstition, particularly if it involves ghosts who could be your ancestors.  The Chinese government banned the movie from theaters, which sorry--No billion.
And that didn't turn out to be the only victim of political repression, when the state also silenced Warner/DC's Suicide Squad for depicting psychotic criminals as heroes, or Ben-Hur for promoting a religious Christian message.  Some hardliners even questioned the "corrupting Western influence" of Disney's Zootopia unscientifically teaching young children that foxes and rabbits can ultimately get along, never mind the dangerous metaphor that smart, ambitious rabbits on the job in the city can upset the social hierarchy and outwit their ruling natural predators.
Here is the first lesson in why a different country is a Different country, and can not be counted upon to do what US audiences do--And why a studio can't necessarily run crying to the International market every time one's own movie does badly at home, like the 4-yo. who runs to hope Grandma will say yes even when Mommy says no.

So, what have we learned, after all the rubble has been cleared, and all the fallout has settled?  (Besides helpfully knowing who to blame, that is.)
That when we throw X-Men, Alice, the Ninja Turtles, Jason Bourne, Star Trek, Independence Day, etc., into the mix, perhaps that a lot of big-budget central corporate-tentpole movies this summer were made AT the audience, rather than FOR them.  Studios embarked on long-range marketing strategies that would have them smugly and comfortably set for the next three years with pre-greenlit tentpole "franchise" movies, tore their hair in bafflement when it didn't happen, and threw tantrums at the paying moviegoers who weren't letting them do it.  And then tried to find excuses why what US moviegoers thought "didn't matter" anyway, since the boardroom-franchise money would all eventually come from somewhere, and numbers wouldn't lie.
The problem happened when the money didn't come in.  Because someone forgot where that money came from, and burned their bridges to getting it.
If we learn a lesson from 2016--and that's still a big "if"--it's that if you make a movie without an audience in mind, that's exactly what you'll get:  A movie without an audience.

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