“Ninety percent of everything is crap.” – Theodore Sturgeon
The successful sci-fi author delivered that gem to Venture magazine, after being bombarded with the umpteenth question about why so much sci-fi sucks so hard so often. And so was born the oft-quoted “Sturgeon’s Law”, an assertion as bitter as it is true. He was right to suggest that sci-fi doesn’t have a monopoly on mediocrity. Whether you collect fine art or pop records, you’re going to have to sift through a ton of trash to find even a little bit of treasure. But while I think Sturgeon’s right that it’s harder to find quality than crap in most endeavors, I think he’s wrong to suggest that they all share the same ratio.
For example, let’s take film. If you did an honest accounting of the popular mediums, I think it would be hard to deny that going to the movies delivers disappointment more reliably than any other diversion. In every other field, we are living in a golden age of excellence and accessibility. There is more quality television, music, writing , and design being produced now than the average person can hope to keep up with, and it’s easier than ever to gain exposure to it. But for movie fans, you could check out all the great films of most years over a long weekend. I don’t care if you’re talking about the multiplex or the arthouse, a lightweight romantic comedy or a weighty drama tackling the social issue du jour. Excellence is an endangered species in the movie world, and I don’t see the situation getting better any time soon.
A GOOD MOVIE IS HARD TO
In some ways, this is inevitable and longstanding, an inherent property of the medium itself. It is exponentially harder to achieve excellence in filmmaking than it is in other mediums. Now, that’s not to say that someone who makes a great movie is more talented than someone who paints an incredible painting, records a brilliant album, or writes a masterful novel – or even a harder worker. I’m simply saying that, for reasons I’ll go into below, there are many, many more obstacles standing between the vision in a moviemaker’s head and its real world execution than there are in other fields.
Making a movie takes a lot of people. There’s no way around this fact, even for indies. And this has considerable consequences for the creation of art. A songwriter can write a song by themselves, and either record it solo or, unless they’re the Polyphonic Spree and need 28 people, recruit three or four other musicians and form a band. A novelist needs only themselves, time, and maybe an editor, to complete their book. A painter needs a few supplies and a canvas. You see where I’m going with this.
As Edward Jay Epstein puts it:
Assembling a small army of individuals with highly specialized skills on a temporary basis is not an easy task. It requires persuading individuals to contractually commit themselves, often six months in advance, to a job that may last for only a few weeks, and to forego other opportunities. They must work long and unusual hours, often with strangers who may be unfamiliar with their methods and, in some cases, hostile to them. Then, after completing their task, they must seek other employment.
Epstein’s only covering the logistical difficulties involved, not the creative ones. Imagine trying to get 100 or more people to collaborate on any other kind of artistic endeavor, and take a guess on the odds of being anything less than a muddled mush of crossed signals and pained egos.
Now, all these people we’re talking about don’t come cheap. Sure, on some indies, you can get your friends to work for free on your first or second movies, but after a while, you realize using volunteers gets you volunteer quality product. You need professionals, and professionals cost. This is why, despite their best efforts, the arthouse and the indies haven’t really stepped up to the plate where the studios fail. A talented amateur filmmaker is still an amateur.
MAMMON AND THE MOVIES
The average daily running cost on a studio picture in 2000 was $165,000. Naturally, the incredible – some would say obscene – amount of money required to make one movie has a filtering effect on what kind of art you end up with. You either somehow pony up a few hundred thousand – at the very, very low end – to make your own movie, or you come up with a script that will make a movie that an army of marketing experts think they can design a poster around. Originality and complexity are anathema to this mindset; they’re too unpredictable at the box office. Better to stick with known formulas, well-worn tropes, familiar franchises, and lowest common denominators. It’s a truism that aiming for the widest possible audience means working in the shallowest artistic pools .
This is not another rant against the idiocy and poor taste of the major studios. Though I’m sure most movie execs probably have both traits in spades, they start the game with their hands tied. They’re dealing with astronomical sums of other people’s – i.e., their parent company’s – money. If they continually gamble billions of dollars on aesthetic whims with little chance of profit, they and thousands of other people are out of jobs. Resolving the tension between making something worthwhile and making a return on investments of that size has always been tricky. We shouldn’t be asking why Hollywood keeps making bad movies. We should be asking how it ever makes good ones.
As Samuel Beckett knew, the act of art is the art of failing better. And success once doesn’t guarantee your next fifty attempts won’t be failures. It’s just part of the process. Great artists need thick skins, time, and persistence. But the huge hurdles of filmmaking make it so expensive to fail, most filmmakers just don’t get that many chances. And if they do get to make their script, chances are it will tampered with at every stage of the process; its unique peaks flattened to resemble proven moneymakers, its idiosyncrasies and eccentricities shaved off so as not to offend or confuse a mass audience, and by the time it’s all over the work is so altered as to be unrecognizable to its creator and unpalatable to anyone with half a brain.
In the next installment, I’ll look at why TV is enjoying a creative renaissance while films flounder, and what the movie studios can learn from that.