Saturday, May 25, 2013

How I Would Have Done It: The Final

(What I'd like to do in my How I Would Have Done It posts is examine a movie that I think didn't live up to its potential and, well, talk about how I would have done it if I'd been the writer or director. Mostly because just leaving it at "that was dumb" or "that sucked" is kind of unsatisfying, especially when there was something really good buried in there somewhere. I'll be discussing story elements in detail, so all kinds of spoilers await.)

The Final was the first movie I ever considered as the subject of a How I Would Have Done It post, way back almost 3 years ago when I first started writing this little thing of mine. The experience I had watching it could be summed up as "So…this kind of sucks. It kind of sucks, and it doesn't have to." It was the first time I found myself watching a film and thinking of specific ways it could have been improved. There's a good idea for an intense psychological thriller here, but it's buried under some sub-Saw bullshit and baffling pacing choices. The Final is a movie about the fucked-up things that teenagers do to each other, and there's a lot of potential there that the filmmakers eschew for a bunch of torture set pieces.   The real scary thing in this movie isn't all of the gory atrocities visited upon the popular kids, it's the ease with which teenagers are capable of doing terrible things, and how quickly events spiral out of control.

More Reasons to Hate Franchising

So there's all the ones I talked about in terms of why sequels suck and why exploitation of a sub-genre sucks.

There's another one: It takes the attention off the creators of the work and puts it on specific elements of the work itself - not the work, but pieces of it.

This ties in to the basic problem with sequels - whatever is seen as the most marketable aspect of a film becomes, over multiple iterations, its most defining feature. Over time, the Saw films become nothing more than showcases for increasingly elaborate traps. The Nightmare on Elm Street films become showcases for a wisecracking bogeyman who kills teens in increasingly surreal ways. The Hostel films become showcases for increasingly baroque staging for torture and murder. The people - you know, the element of the story that allows us to connect to and engage in the story - recede into the background in favor of the one thing that can remain unchanged between movies, the organizing principle around which a marketing campaign can be built. This is why sequels are, more often than not, increasingly shitty.

Maybe because of this (and what ends up being diminishing returns for some properties), maybe because it's really difficult to convince studios to back challenging, original genre films (though, mercifully, pretty easy once the film's been made and they don't have to pay for production to get them to snap up the rights to it), more and more old properties are being cannibalized for remakes, reboots, re-imaginings, whatever. It's basically a do-over. You go back to the structure of the original film, the one that was good/successful enough to inspire all of the sequels, try to strip away all the stuff that dates and limits it, and throw it back out there and hope you preserve enough of what made it good/successful to make it profitable all over again and maybe…just maybe…get a whole new franchise out of it. Sometimes it works out pretty well (The Ring, Halloween), sometimes it doesn't (A Nightmare on Elm Street). And so now there's another mystery to ponder…these movies did well originally, what could possibly have been missed in the remakes that bombed, and what went right in the remakes that did well?

Well, I don't know, how about THE PEOPLE YOU HAD WORKING ON THEM?

The decision about what kind of movie gets funded is made by producers and studio heads. The movies themselves are made by writers, directors, actors, cinematographers, costume and set designers, sound designers, lighting designers, and all of the people who work for them. Some jackass could give the green light to a remake of, oh, I don't know, Invasion of the Bee Girls (which if you haven't seen it, is right up there with Blue Sunshine as transcendently cheesy and awful movies go), and depending on who actually made the movie, it could come out well - as a sendup of or even homage to exactly the sort of movie it was to start with, as a highly-stylized period-appropriate film played straight, or a modern take that could actually be really fucking scary. On the other hand, it could come out really poorly, as an empty bag of clich├ęs and dull gimmicks interchangeable with any other slasher film. It all depends on the quality of the script, the ability of the actors, the vision of the director, and the design of the whole production. 

So here's my point: Instead of focusing on franchises, why not focus on people who are actually good at what they do and let them make good movies, franchised or not?

I have a pretty simple heuristic: Is the movie being advertised as "from the writers/director of…(some movie I really liked)?" It's probably worth a shot. Is it being advertised as "from the PRODUCERS of…(some movie I really liked)?" Yeah, it's probably going to suck. Neither is foolproof. Great writers and directors make bad movies, and people who fund good movies do, on occasion, fund other good movies. But I'd argue that it's the people actually making the movie who have more impact on the movie's final quality. Good producers know how to manage the money and work with the people making the movie to make sure it gets made on time and to (or under) budget, and that's absolutely vital, but cinematic history is littered with examples of producers thinking they're writers or directors and fucking it up for everyone. Great writers and directors can make wonderful movies, but man, some of the decisions they make in terms of time and budget can be mind-boggling. So it's probably better for everyone if the producers handle the money and the creative team handle the the moviemaking. 

That said, I can sort of understand why some producers feel the need to play writer/director - it's the people who make the actual movie who get the attention. Nobody's writing critical essays on the contributions of Jon Peters or Harvey Weinstein to film (except maybe in a "oh you horrible bastard" sort of way). Producers don't get their own retrospectives. But instead of trying to turn themselves into the people who get all the attention, maybe they and studio heads should recognize the value of this attention and use that as a way to sell a wider variety of properties with less chance of going stale over repeated iterations because let's face it: Actors have broad followings, directors have more focused followings, and film writers have smaller followings, but they all have followings, no matter what property it is on which they're working. 

It's not even like this is unheard of among horror enthusiasts. All kinds of directors have devoted followings among horror enthusiasts, so I'm sort of baffled by why studios don't take advantage of this more. From a bottom-line perspective, maybe the franchise name really does bring more people in than a director's name does. I think that's dumb, but dumb money spends just like smart money does, so from that angle it's an easily defended practice. Still, for the sake of film, for the sake of the art upon whose back the business rests, why not diversify and capitalize on star directors and writers as much as on franchises? The broader the range of filmmaking opportunities, the more opportunity to make interesting, new, challenging films. These are good for art as well as commerce, since good movies, unhindered by the increasingly restrictive requirements of a franchise, bring people in - they bring some into the theaters, they bring some to streaming or on-demand viewing, they bring some to home video sales. Some movies take longer to become profitable than others, but in an age with so many different ways to see a movie, relying on one specific strategy for most of your movie-funding decisions doesn't make any sense. 

If, at the end of the day, it's all exercises in brand establishment, extension, and growth, why can't that apply to writers and directors? These movies, apart from being worthwhile works of art themselves, also serve as seeds for future franchises. You can only milk the same character or situation so many times, at some point you have to grow new franchises to develop. I sort of feel dirty even saying that, because I really do think franchising is bad for horror, and part of (certainly not all) why horror often does not get taken seriously as film. The more you focus on film as product, the less anyone is going to think of it as art.

And since franchising seems to be the go-to strategy, it seems like increasingly films aren't made as discrete, self-contained stories, but rather as opportunities to launch a brand, and as most recently in the case of Sinister, product taking priority over art lead to obvious aesthetic compromise, and the film was made worse for it. So instead of sending the message that if you're lucky, your film will be the first in a series of 5 or 6 that will get you a payday and maybe gigs directing some of those installment while making sick bank for the studio, send the message that if you're lucky, your film will be the first step to making you a household name among horror fans, giving you the chance to make all kinds of crazy movies and make them well, all while making sick bank for the studio. 

And if you bitch about the dearth of good, original horror movies? Think twice before going to see (Movie Title) (Number > 1), because when you do that, you're telling the people who decide what kind of movies get funded and/or distributed that franchising works.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Not Dead, But Dreaming

Just a quick note to say that this blog is by no means dead, but I'm currently digging out from under a pile of hideously busy month at work, personal upheaval, and computer going kablooie. I hope to resume regular posting shortly, but in the interim, I'd like to point out that Kill List, one of my favorite movies of 2011, is now available on Netflix, so go get that shit. For that matter, so is Snowtown (a/k/a The Snowtown Murders), so go get that shit too.