Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Famous monsters of filmland

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For his new book The Big Picture: The Fight for the Future of the Movies, the journalist Ben Fritz reviewed every email from the hack of Sony Pictures, which are still available online. Whatever you might think about the ethics of using such material, it’s a gold mine of information about how Hollywood has done business over the last decade, and Fritz has come up with some fascinating nuggets. One of the most memorable finds is an exchange between studio head Amy Pascal and the producer Scott Rudin, who was trying to convince her to take a chance on Danny Boyle’s adaptation of Steve Jobs. Pascal had expressed doubts about the project, particularly over the casting of Michael Fassbender in the lead, and after arguing it was less risky than The Social Network, Rudin delivered a remarkable pep talk:

You ought to be doing this movie—period—and you and I both know that the cold feet you are feeling is costing you this movie that you want. Once you have cold feet, you’re done. You’re making this decision in the anticipation of how you will be looked at in failure. That’s how you fail. So you’re feeling wobbly in the job right now. Here’s the fact: nothing conventional you could do is going to change that, and there is no life-changing hit that is going to fall into your lap that is not a nervous decision, because the big obvious movies are going to go elsewhere and you don’t have the IP right now to create them from standard material. You have this. Face it…Force yourself to muster some confidence about it and do the exact thing right now for which your career will be known in movie history: be the person who makes the tough decisions and sticks with them and makes the unlikely things succeed. Fall on your sword—when you’ve lost that, it’s finished. You’re the person who does these movies. That’s—for better or worse—who you are and who you will remain. To lose that is to lose yourself.

Steve Jobs turned out to be a financial disappointment, and its failure—despite the prestige of its subject, director, and cast—feels emblematic of the move away from films driven by stars to those that depend on “intellectual property” of the kind that Sony lacked. In particular, the movie industry seems to have shifted to a model perfected by Marvel Studios, which builds a cinematic universe that can drum up excitement for future installments and generate huge grosses overseas. Yet this isn’t exactly new. In the groundbreaking book The Genius of the System, which was published three decades ago, Thomas Schatz notes that Universal did much the same in the thirties, when it pioneered the genre of cinematic horror under founder Carl Laemmle and his son:

The horror picture scarcely emerged full-blown from the Universal machinery, however. In fact, the studio had been cultivating the genre for years, precisely because it played to Universal’s strengths and maximized its resources…Over the years Carl Laemmle built a strong international distribution system, particularly in Europe…[European filmmakers] brought a fascination for the cinema’s distinctly unrealistic qualities, its capacity to depict a surreal landscape of darkness, nightmare logic, and death. This style sold well in Europe.

After noting that the aesthetics of horror lent itself to movies built out of little more than shadows and fog, which were the visual effects of its time, Schatz continues: “This rather odd form of narrative economy was vitally important to a studio with limited financial resources and no top stars to carry its pictures. And in casting, too, the studio turned a limitation into an asset, since the horror film did not require romantic leads or name stars.”

The turning point was Tod Browning’s Dracula, a movie “based on a presold property” that could serve as an entry point for other films along the same lines. It didn’t require a star, but “an offbeat character actor,” and Universal’s expectations for it eerily foreshadow the way in which studio executives still talk today. Schatz writes:

Laemmle was sure it would [succeed]—so sure, in fact, that he closed the Frankenstein deal several weeks before Dracula’s February 1931 release. The Lugosi picture promptly took off at the box office, and Laemmle was more convinced than ever that the horror film was an ideal formula for Universal, given its resources and the prevailing market conditions. He was convinced, too, that he had made the right decision with Frankenstein, which had little presold appeal but now had the success of Dracula to generate audience anticipation.

Frankenstein, in short, was sort of like the Ant-Man of the thirties, a niche property that leveraged the success of its predecessors into something like real excitement. It worked, and Universal’s approach to its monsters anticipates what Marvel would later do on a vaster scale, with “ambitious crossover events” like House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula that combined the studio’s big franchises with lesser names that seemed unable to carry a film on their own. (If Universal’s more recent attempt to do the same with The Mummy fell flat, it was partially because it was unable to distinguish between the horror genre, the star picture, and the comic book movie, resulting in a film that turned out to be none of the above. The real equivalent today would be Blumhouse Productions, which has done a much better job of building its brand—and which distributes its movies through Universal.)

And the inability of such movies to provide narrative closure isn’t a new development, either. After seeing James Whale’s Frankenstein, Carl Laemmle, Jr. reacted in much the same way that executives presumably do now:

Junior Laemmle was equally pleased with Whale’s work, but after seeing the rough cut he was certain that the end of the picture needed to be changed. His concerns were twofold. The finale, in which both Frankenstein and his monster are killed, seemed vaguely dissatisfying; Laemmle suspected that audiences might want a glimmer of hope or redemption. He also had a more pragmatic concern about killing off the characters—and thus any possibility of sequels. Laemmle now regretted letting Professor Van Helsing drive that stake through Count Dracula’s heart, since it consigned the original character to the grave…Laemmle was not about to make the same mistake by letting that angry mob do away with the mad doctor and his monster.

Whale disagreed, but he was persuaded to change the ending after a preview screening, leaving open the possibility that the monster might have survived. Over eight decades later, Joss Whedon offered a similar explanation in an interview with Mental Floss: “It’s difficult because you’re living in franchise world—not just Marvel, but in most big films—where you can’t kill anyone, or anybody significant…My feeling in these situations with Marvel is that if somebody has to be placed on the altar and sacrificed, I’ll let you guys decide if they stay there.” For now, we’re living in a world made by the Universal monsters—and with only a handful of viable properties, half of which are owned by Disney. Without them, it might seem impossible, as Rudin said, “to create them from standard material.” But we’re also still waiting to be blindsided by the next great franchise. As another famous monster once put it: “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” And when it came to the movies, at least, Steve Jobs was right.

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