Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Dragon That Devours Originality

Peek at the list of the highest-grossing box office receipt for movies playing in your local theaters tonight. You'll see that four of the top 10, and seven of the top 20 of those movies are outright sequels, or feature iconic characters like Superman, Wolverine, or the Lone Ranger. Perhaps the most glaring example of this rinse-and-repeat business model in film is Ian Fleming's creation, James Bond. Beginning with his cinematic debut in 1962's "Dr. No," Bond has shot up the silver screen 25 times in one guise or another, his appearances never separated by more than four years while grossing over $6 billion to date. (The next Bond film is scheduled for release on October 23, 2015.) There are eight Harry Potter movies, and J.K. Rowling's creation has raked in even more movie dollars than 007. We can't kid ourselves into thinking the current box office returns are anything extraordinary when it comes to sequels and retreads. The same is true for any given week for this year, and for many years past.

You shrug and say, so what? The dearth of meaningful creativity in Hollywood is a corpse long ago buried. Even back in Hollywood's so-called "golden age," the Mummy returned more times than once, as did his creepy colleagues Frankenstein's monster and the Wolfman. Dashiell Hammett's "The Thin Man" had a six-movie run, too, before leaping onto television. So there's nothing to see here. Shove your hands in your pockets and keep whistling as you saunter past orginality's gravestone on your way to the cineplex.

But there's an important difference between the "why" of Hollywood's golden age, and the "why" of Hollwood now, that keeps the lid slammed firmly on original thought and execution in American cinema. And that "why" applies just as much to books and authors as it does to movies, television (Syfy's "Sharknado 2" has its hotly-anticipated American television debut on August 22, 2013, only 42 days following the hit premiere of "Sharknado" on July 11), and popular music. Accordingly, this "why" is just as relevant, and crucial to understand, for authors as it is for their compatriots toiling in other mainstream entertainment ventures.

The golden age's "why" and the current one of course share their bedrock obsession--amassing as much money as possible. But it's the journey that has changed, not the remunerative destination. In the golden age, thinking about sequels was not particularly sophisticated. Rather, it went along the lines of, "Hey, people seem to like this werewolf guy and we made some bucks off it, so let's do it again and see if we can squeeze some more dough from their wallets and purses." What was Hollywood's competition back then? With rare exceptions, nothing offered up by radio, books, prize fights, horse racing, and baseball could compete with Hollywood's bright lights and big stars.

The world is very different now. Flatter, Thomas Friedman correctly calls it.

We all know about globalization. Globalization impacts the entertainment industry with the same brute force it does any other commercial endeavor. Globalization is fathered in significant part by the virtually ubiquitous, instantaneous and incessant information and communication made possible by the Internet. In turn the attention span of a potential target audience for any product or service, no matter how (un)worthy those products or services may be, is increasingly torn and frayed among literally limitless options; options far in excess of only radio, books, prize fights, horse racing, and baseball. And in a globalized market, what will play well in Dubai and Beijing matters as least as much, and often far more, than what will make bank in Peoria.

So enters the cursed globe-trotting dragon, and its name is "pre-awareness." The rubes in Dubai and Beijing know James Bond, Superman, the little blob people in "Despicable Me," and the speed demons of "The Fast and the Furious" as well as the rubes do in Peoria. There's no need to educate any audience domestic or foreign about these characters, or the kinds of movies they populate. The rubes are all pre-aware, which mitigates mightily against the risk of a flopped film, while increasing just as mightily the potential reward of foisting yet another Spider-Man series on the world when Toby Maguire's Peter Parker isn't even cold yet.

On this subject I can't recommend highly enough a new book by renowned Hollywood movie producer Lynda Obst. As it says on her website, "For the past 20 years, working with some of the most talented filmmakers in Hollywood, Lynda Obst Productions has nurtured over a dozen film projects from the early development and writing stages, through principal photography, post-production, and finally to theatrical release." Those projects include "Flashdance," "Sleepless in Seattle," "Contact," "Hope Floats," "The Siege," "How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days," and "The Invention of Lying," among many others you've at least heard of and likely seen. Obst is no slouch. She knows what she's talking about. And she's talking about it in her new book, Sleepless in Hollywood: Tales from the New Abnormal in the Movie Business.

Now, I'll concede there are fundamental reasons why the movie business has sacrificed originality on the dollar's altar that aren't analogous to what's going on in the current book industry. In turn, you'll concede that when you check the fiction bestseller lists on any given Sunday, the majority of titles on those lists are the latest installments in one series or another written by authors whose names aren't strange to you. As Obst recently tweeted me, "The book biz, music biz and movie biz have all been swallowed by the same black hole: pre-awareness."

I was struck hard by Obst's premise in contemplating the rosy fortune of new British crime author Robert Galbraith, and his debut novel, The Cuckoo's Calling. Despite receiving consistently good professional and consumer reviews, Galbraith's book sold not many copies anywhere. As a matter of fact, it sold less than 8,500 copies in all of England from the day of its release last April until the day it leaked that "John Galbraith" is a pen name for the afore-mentioned J.K. Rowling, of Harry Potter fame. Within hours of the leak, sales for The Cuckoo's Calling skyrocketed 507,000% (that is not a typo) on Amazon, and John Galbraith found herself the most popular author in the English-speaking world.

Is what's between the covers of The Cuckoo's Calling any different, better, or worse whether you read the novel thinking it the work of Robert Galbraith, or of J.K. Rowling? No. It's the exact same book, identical in every detail of plot, structure, narrative technique, setting, character, and dialogue.

The difference between Galbraith's sales and Rowling's has absolutely nothing to do with the quality of The Cuckoo's Calling. It's only Obst's "pre-awareness" dragon breathing its fiery power on the necks of readers on both sides of the Atlantic.

It's all well and good for authors to bemoan traditional publishing houses' and general readership's shared wariness of anything even mildly less than formulaic from an author without commercial pedigree. Our compatriotic scribes in Hollywood bemoan the same. Well, excepting the ones who understand and embrace that Galbraith was nothing until he was Rowling.