June 18, 2005
A thought by James Berardinelli

It's a well-known truth that there are no new stories to be told. But I wish Hollywood would do a better job of dressing up the old ones so it doesn't seem like every movie is a carbon-copy. As if it isn't bad enough that seemingly 1/3 of the high-profile motion picture are re-makes or sequels, a majority of the other 2/3 stays so close to formula that they seem like remakes. There are few things more disheartening than to know from the beginning how a movie is going to end, and to anticipate nearly every step of the plot. This sameness is one of the many things that's killing motion pictures, and rendering the experience of watching them a shadow of what it once was. In the past, I have focused on the negatives associated with seeing a movie in the increasingly viewer-unfriendly environment of a multiplex. Now it's time to examine the other side of the equation of dwindling attendance figures: the negative impact of an inferior product.

The viewing public has a greater tolerance for repetitive garbage on DVD than they have in theaters. That's why many formulaic box-office disappointments recoup their costs once they reach home video. (A few even become bona fide hits.) It's a matter of tolerance and learned behavior. Over the years, we have been taught not to expect too much from TV. Mild entertainment is a success. A trip to the theater requires effort (and sometimes a significant outlay of money, especially if dinner is involved), so we expect more. And, when we get "TV fare," we grumble and think twice about going again. That's human nature.

Back to the "sameness" issue. Risk-aversion has become a common pasttime in Hollywood. Common sense dictates: don't make anything that might scare away viewers. The core problem is that movies are so damn expensive to make that a flop can be devastating. And no one knows beforehand whether something offbeat will be a success (Million Dollar Baby) or a disappointment (The Jacket). At least with a formulaic film, there's a reasonable chance that, once video proceeds are factored in, it will at least break even. No one considers the long-term effects of this policy on the industry in general. One might as well hand out cookie cutters.

The key to the survival of interesting motion pictures to make them cheaply. Unfortunately, even considering the indie market (where the overhead is lower and actors sometimes cut their appearance fees), it's becoming increasingly difficult to find movies that have sane budgets. They're out there, to be sure, but not in multiplexes. You have to scour the film festival circuit or spend time at your local arthouse to locate them. Movies like Me and You and Everyone We Know and 3-Iron work in large part because they aren't like everything else. Ironically, this is the reason why they aren't commercially viable. Movie-goers complain about "sameness," yet when they're given a chance at something different, they reject it because it's "weird" or "unappealing." No wonder Hollywood has entered the recylcling business.

I admit that I don't enjoy seeing movies as much as I did five or ten years ago. There are some films I attend out of a sense of obligation. If I wasn't reviewing, I wouldn't see them. The surprises, like the aforementioned two films and others like them, are what make it all worthwhile. And there's still some pleasure to be found when the formula is well executed (Batman Begins, for example). But when studio executives wonder why theater-goers aren't enthusiastic about their movies, all they have to do is take a step back and consider the product from a neutral perspective. How much of this summer's fare is worth getting excited about?