Mark Harris has written an interesting piece for the new GQ called The Day The Movies Died; it’s yet another piece in a long history of pieces lamenting the shitiness of modern movies (a history to which I’ve contributed more than my fair share). There are some very interesting things in Harris’ article, especially a discussion of the rise of movie marketing being parallel to the fall of movie storytelling. He’s right - the movies that get greenlit are the ones that can be sold, not the ones that are good.
Harris makes an interesting assertion, going against the long-held truism that it was Star Wars and Jaws that caused the decline of movie quality (not the films themselves, per se, but the impact that the concept of blockbusters had on movie making) - he says that actually it was Top Gun that dealt the blow to Hollywood.
Then came Top Gun. The man calling the shots may have been Tony Scott, but the film’s real auteurs were producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, two men who pioneered the “high-concept” blockbuster—films for which the trailer or even the tagline told the story instantly. At their most basic, their movies weren’t movies; they were pure product—stitched-together amalgams of amphetamine action beats, star casting, music videos, and a diamond-hard laminate of technological adrenaline all designed to distract you from their lack of internal coherence, narrative credibility, or recognizable human qualities. They were rails of celluloid cocaine with only one goal: the transient heightening of sensation.
Top Gun landed directly in the cortexes of a generation of young moviegoers whose attention spans and narrative tastes were already being recalibrated by MTV and video games. That generation of 16-to-24-year-olds—the guys who felt the rush of Top Gun because it was custom-built to excite them—is now in its forties, exactly the age of many mid- and upper-midrange studio executives. And increasingly, it is their taste, their appetite, and the aesthetic of their late-‘80s postadolescence that is shaping moviemaking. Which may be a brutally unfair generalization, but also leads to a legitimate question: Who would you rather have in charge—someone whose definition of a classic is Jaws or someone whose definition of a classic is Top Gun?
That last sentence is telling, and in 30 years we’re going to be seeing sentences like “Who would you rather have in charge—someone whose definition of a classic is Jaws or someone whose definition of a classic is Transformers?”
Harris’ piece really brings me back to the unhealthy scale of movie making and selling. It’s mentioned in the article that mid-level, 40-60 million dollar dramas are impossible to make profitable anymore. The cost of selling them is so high that it essentially doubles the amount needed to be recouped. Of course 40-60 million is a whole lot of money in general, and that also speaks to the scale of filmmaking. It all costs too much. And as it costs too much to sell them and make them, the only way to get your money back is to guarantee a massive hit. And the only way to guarantee a massive hit is to ape the massive hit that came before - or at least sell it that way. We’re still seeing 40 Year Old Virgin-inspired posters with Hall Pass this week.
I hope that the movie industry figures its shit out. I would rather see a couple less action films and superhero movies and more films that are smart and about stuff. I know, I’m elitist.