Justice League has been anticipated for years. And now it has come and gone with a whimper. What happened?
There is no one thing you can do to fix a mediocre or bad movie…or is there? We try to on several different movies where one bad idea changed could make all the difference.
As any artist (especially we indie folks) will tell you, marketing is hard. It takes time, money, effort, a fair amount of patience, and holds no guarantee that a given marketing effort will be successful. It’s the same problem the big players face.
On a recent episode of one of the regular podcasts I listen to, they started discussing news from this year’s annual Comic Con. Most of this discussion centered on news announcements from Marvel and DC Comics about major superhero films to be released next year or in 2015. This has me reflecting on the business side of storytelling and how much we all collectively suffer from genre chasing.
What’s that mean?
For a moment we’ll stick with films to explore this issue. Several decades ago almost none of the studios were willing to finance and market a big budget superhero film. The perception was that such films were inherently campy, would attract only die-hard comic fans, and would basically bomb at the box office. Fast forward a few decades and the biggest film news (and films with the biggest box office return) comes from two comic book companies. What changed?
Back in the 1950’s the safe money was primarily in stories from the Western genre; this year one of the biggest flops of the summer is Disney’s The Lone Ranger. The late ‘70’s and early ‘80’s witnessed a resurgence in the science fiction genre (also big in the ‘50’s). Eventually that trend too was replaced. Sooner or later the glut of big (and small budget) superhero films will also dissipate. The billion dollar question then becomes: what genre do audiences want now?
Authors suffer a similar problem. We want to tell stories that people will find interesting and hopefully read. Big publishers want to sell books and make money. The easiest way for them to do that is to push or embrace hot trends in certain genres. Harry Potter becomes an international sensation and suddenly you’re better off telling stories about magic. Twilight makes a big splash; good thing you had the foresight to write about vampires. The Hunger Games hit; quick, write a dystopian novel aimed at YA readers. 50 Shades of Grey has sex and sex sells…
Oh wait, your work doesn’t have these things? Your book doesn’t follow the same structure as these stories? Your book is in what genre?
It can be maddening to try and deal with the genre chasing. Again, it’s understandable that big publishers (like film studios) want to make money but as a storyteller it can be extremely frustrating to have worked so hard on a writing project only to have genre chasing limit its chances for success.
But remember that this is nothing new. Publishers, authors, and readers have been dancing this waltz for a very long time. And it’s unlikely the music will stop any time soon.
So what’s an author to do? Do you give in to a genre trend and craft a story that has a better chance of getting serious notice from publishers because it appeals to the audience of the moment? Do you ignore these trends and tell the story you want to tell, regardless of the genre and try to discover your audience? Should you go visit a local fortuneteller to guide you to the right genre? Hire a bunch of people in business suits to predict what will be the next genre to mine?
My simple advice is this: write your story first. Write what you want to write. Tell the story you feel passionate about telling.
Decisions about marketing often begin to fully take shape during the editing process. The feedback you receive might give you new directions to explore that take your writing in a completely different direction than the one you originally envision. Pay service to your story first before you pay a service to help market it.
If you end up with a story that doesn’t neatly fall into a genre that’s currently rife with bestsellers — don’t panic. If your story is well-crafted, interesting, and something you truly want to share it will find an audience in time. Besides, the genre chasing never stops so who knows; you may just be ahead of the curve.
In a recent interview, two giants of the film making industry, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, predicted that the theater going experience (and movie making in general) will cease to exist in the near future. (Click to read the interview.)
Lucas and Spielberg feel that the film industry distribution model is fundamentally changing. Similar to many of the issues that authors (well-known or not) face when trying to get a book released or marketed in the mainstream publishing industry today, studios want to score big on what they view as sure fire hits. Hence fewer and fewer screenplays, that aren’t part of an existing brand, are being produced by the mainstream media.
As someone who enjoys seeing and discussing films (see the Hindsight is 20-20 podcast) and has aspirations of selling a screenplay some day, I have to say that these remarks by two Hollywood icons caught my attention. They contend that due to the costs involved in producing and marketing the big blockbuster films today that studios and theaters will attempt to offset those costs with tiered pricing for tickets (example: a special effects laden film like Man of Steel would cost you $50.00+ per ticket while a film like Argo might cost you $9.00+), far fewer “big” spectacle movies (the blockbuster movie model would cease to be and films might run for a year in the theater), and more and more movies/media content will be delivered directly to the consumer at home through a service like Netflix with no true theatrical release.
While all these types of predictions may not come to pass it’s impossible to deny that change is (and has been) underway in how we as a society consume media. I recently watched Season 4 of Arrested Development on Netflix streaming. The entire season was released at once. Was I glad I could watch the show at my own pace, without commercials, at the same price as everything else I can watch on Netflix streaming? Absolutely. Was something of the experience with new content lost since I watched it in a relatively short amount of time? Probably. This new on demand form of media means I have to watch spoiling the show for others or can’t discuss it until weeks later when they’ve finished watching it. The model also arguably lessens the viewer’s connection to the content. I can view it all at once, quickly, then move on to the next thing without really allowing time for it to sink in or really reflect upon it. When a show is released an episode at a time it allows the viewer additional time to evaluate how they feel about a storyline or character, speculate what will happen next, involve others about their insights and opinions about the show. The viewing becomes a shared experience because of the discussions that spring from it. How many relationships have been enriched by talking about a movie or television show?
There is a huge social aspect to movie or television viewing. People love to absorb, share, discuss, and critique stories. It’s in our nature. We’ve all had bad experiences at the movie theater: obnoxious people in the audience, rising costs to go, sold out shows,etc. Still there’s something wonderful about going and sharing the experience of seeing a film on that big screen and escaping, if only for a short time, into the world on screen. I’d hate to see that experience end because the flaws in the Hollywood studio system.
If the movie industry follows the path envisioned by Lucas and Spielberg, how will that impact not only the consumers and Hollywood industry but the creators and writers as well? Some claim the more innovative productions and storytelling are already taking place on television. Obviously they’ll follow the money into whatever viable forms of distribution present themselves but will the quality of the storytelling change (good or bad), will the craft of screenwriting itself weaken, how might the demise of movies impact other mediums of writing?
In an age of brand driven film projects, reboots, re-imaginings, and blockbusters of the week it’s difficult to predict where all of this is ultimately going but lets hope that the power of films to connect, inspire, and entertain us is not lost as an industry tires to reinvent itself for the 21st century.