Do Work You Can Be Proud Of

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“We make a lot of shitty movies,” Meyer admitted. “Every one of them breaks my heart.”

That was Ron Meyer, President/COO Universal Studios (excerpted from Movie|Line). No earthshattering revelations here. Heck, every organization makes mistakes, there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m fond of paraphrasing some quote or another to the effect of—if you don’t screw up once in a while, you’re not trying hard enough.

However, there’s another quote in the same article.

“[A critical hit is] great when it happens. But we did A Beautiful Mind, and I don’t know that we’d do A Beautiful Mind again. That’s the sad part. It’s great to win awards and make films that you’re proud of and make money, but your first obligation is to make money and then worry about being proud of what you do.”

God DAMN it.

It’s clear that what he’s getting at is that Universal Studios is not currently in the business of making art, or even great movies. Universal Studios is in the business of making profitable movies, and in the process shoveling as much cash into their shareholder’s coal chutes as possible.

This is not news. However, the hew and cry about “we’re heartbroken about our shitty movies” is grating, because what I’m hearing is that you’re not sorry you made shitty movies, you’re sorry your shitty movies didn’t make more money, a point that’s mirrored on another blog post written about this same interview at iO9 (Why We Can’t Have Great Movies).

You can’t say that your first priority is making profits, and then shed tears of woe because somehow, mysteriously, your company made shitty movies as a result. Studio executives ride the producers, the writers, and the director of a major motion picture like ponies in preproduction, during production, and in postproduction. Studio executives approve the pitches, then review the scripts, have them rewritten five times by seven people, shoehorn more marketable actors in the casting, lurk on the sets, and insist on changes to all the edits after test screenings in Southern California malls. Most big-budget films I’m aware of, the studios are all over the process. Mr. Meyer goes on to say that:

“We misfired. We were wrong. We did it badly, and I think we’re all guilty of it. I have to take first responsibility because I’m part of it, but we all did a mediocre job and we paid the price for it. It happens. They’re talented people. Certainly you couldn’t have more talented people involved in Cowboys & Aliens, but it took, you know, ten smart and talented people to come up with a mediocre movie. It just happens.”

Now, I happen to have liked “Cowboys & Aliens,” I thought it was a bit of goofy fun, but it clearly didn’t make the amount of money the studio was hoping for—it cost $163 million to make, and it’s worldwide gross has been $171 million, so he’s throwing it under the bus. It’s nice that he’s taking responsibility, but then saying “it just happens” is disingenuous. Someone from the studio had to have read the script, it’s not like the producers were working in a secret bunker and the studio bankrolled the project sight unseen. The title of the movie is COWBOYS AND ALIENS. What did they think they were going to make?

I suppose they thought they were getting a magic formula for profit. It was based on a comic book (comic adaptations are doing well, right?), it hit the teenage to thirty-something demographic, it was directed by Jon “Iron Man” Favreau (whom I have enormous respect for), starred Harrison “Han Solo/Indiana Jones” Ford, Daniel “James Bond” Craig, and Olivia “House/Tron: Evolution” Wilde, and was written by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (Star Trek, Transformers, Mission: Impossible III). ILM did the many, many effects.

This is a massive collection of proven summer blockbuster talent. How could it have been such a $171 million dollar “failure” when its creative team was so carefully crafted from the perspective of making money? How can he complain about this film when it fits the profit-first production model so well?

Bottom line, if he didn’t believe in the project enough to defend it after the fact, then why did he green light it in the first place?

It was once represented to me that the old-time movie moguls had a two tiered approach to green-lighting projects. They’d approve the cheap and cheerful or expensive and crowd-pleasing projects that would (hopefully) make the money. Then they’d green-light a handful of movies that they knew full well wouldn’t make a ton of money, but were prestige projects. They were good (or at least they thought they would be), and would (a) keep the studios from looking like a bunch of no-taste assholes, and (b) win some academy awards that they could brag about for the next eighty years.

I’ve always thought that to be a fair approach. You want to make money, but you also want to make some good movies that you can take pride in having done, so you split the difference. Use the crowd-pleasers to finance the tough sells, and then stick to your guns with the difficult projects. Many actors follow a similar formula. Do some dumb big-budget nonsense for the payday, then do some risky or no-name indie projects that let you create a performance you’re proud of.

However, what I’m hearing is that the studios are increasingly unwilling to take on prestige projects. At all. They’ll bask in whatever awards they happen to get, and brag about how visionary they were to make such a prestigious piece of work, but they wouldn’t cross the street to get another one made. Instead, a movie adaptation of the board-game “Battleship” gets the go-ahead because it’s got name recognition (to be fair, Peter Berg, whom I respect, is directing; I hope he has fun with it).

I’ve observed a familiar story about a lot of Oscar-winning movies, which is some variation of “it took us years to get this project made, nobody wanted to green-light this movie.” Take “The Hurt Locker.” Kathryn Bigelow had to go forward with a measly $15 million budget to get it done, which tells me that none of the studios were particularly enthused. $15 million for an action-oriented war film. Let’s compare that to the budget for, oh, Kevin Smith’s “Cop Out,” which had a production budget of $30 million.

But she stuck it out, made a hell of a film, proved you don’t need a $150 million budget to do it, and won a well deserved Oscar. And then all of Hollywood got to vicariously bask in the glow of “we don’t just make shit” for one night at the awards ceremony, knowing full well that the next morning the execs would go right back to their desks to continue killing other projects just as worthwhile, while green-lighting other projects based on some imagined profit potential.*

What I find appalling is the naked, brutal admission that pride in making quality films has also become secondary to profits.

PRIDE. Why do any of us do the creative work we do? Are you writing that spec screenplay in order to drive a fast car and wear expensive clothes? You, on the left, did you go into motion graphics design so that you could maximize your profit-making potential? You in the middle, are you slaving away every night editing your independently financed film so that you can swim in an olympic-sized pool with all the money you’ll earn? And you, in the back row, are you honing your craft as a colorist so that you can install solid gold toilet seats in your mansion?

If you are, then you should stop, right now. There are much, much more predictable ways of making money. Ask anyone on Wall Street. Economic success is a terrible reason to pursue a creative career, because it’s so unpredictable. Great projects bomb, projects you might consider to be awful succeed, and one of the most widely quoted sayings in our industry is “nobody knows anything.”

We, and I squarely include myself here, shouldn’t be in this to create wealth. We may be well paid, and we ought to hope for financial rewards to all of our toil, but that will more likely just serve to balance out all the lean years that every freelancer and creative has.

No, we’re in this for pride of ownership. To create good work, quality work, work that we’re proud to stand behind even if it doesn’t turn out to do well financially.

And this ought to be true whether you’re a writer, a director, a post professional, or a studio head. Sure, you’ve got to stay in funds, and find ways of maximizing your revenues where possible. That’s just being sensible. But I sincerely hope that when you’re writing your screenplay, or editing your movie, that you’re saying to yourself, “I like this, this is good, this is something I’d want to go see,” and not “the audience should like this, and this ought to make money, and this should get the project by the studio.”

The studios are openly admitting that they’re bologna factories, cranking out head cheese for demographics that teams of execs have predicted will eat it.

But fuck them. Keep evaluating your work from a personal level. A question I constantly ask myself when I’m writing or working on a project is “why am I doing this?” Is this what I want to be doing, do I enjoy this, or am I pandering to some imagined theory of success?

In short, do I aspire to be a chef in a nice restaurant that tastes the food I’m about to serve, or do I want to work in the Oscar Meyer factory?

Creating media is difficult, arduous work. At whatever level you’re employed, you make important choices every day. Are you creating products that you think will sell to the widest audience, or are you creating projects that speak to you, stories that are important to tell with content that’s personally meaningful to you, whatever the genre?

Because I’ll tell you, the latter are the films I want to watch, and those are the projects I want to work on. Create something that makes you proud. Even if it later turns out to fail, you took your best shot, and you won’t have to stand up in front of an audience at a film festival and apologize.

*To be fair, as far as profits are concerned, Bigelow’s film didn’t make the kind of $200 million payday that studios crave. As good a film as “The Hurt Locker” was, Box Office Mojo reports the worldwide gross as being just under $50 million. That’s out of the park as far as its original $15 million budget goes, but simply making a profit isn’t what the studios are after; they require obscene profits to drive growth for the shareholders. Others have written about the value of sticking to smaller budgets to retain autonomy and to maximize your film’s chances of success. I suspect most non-crowd-pleasing films have the same potential to make about $50 million worldwide if given reasonable marketing support; if you’re making your dream project that appeals to a specific audience or type of fan, you have to accept that not everyone in the world will pay to see it.


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3 thoughts on “Do Work You Can Be Proud Of

  1. Saw your twitter post – great article. Particularly “And you, in the back row, are you honing your craft as a colorist so that you can install solid gold toilet seats in your mansion?” I grade because I get all geeked out with the client when I’m affecting the image to serve the story better. If I wanted to be wealthy I’d of gone to law school or a million other professions. Oh, and your book is fantastic. Thanks for putting in all the hard work to create the quintessential text on the subject.

  2. Pingback: The Editblog » Linkage: November 2011

  3. Amen…as an aspiring filmmaker, it’s great to hear a reality check on the status of filmmaking as an art in the industry. No big news there looking at the movies out every year…But it seems easy to take the tangent, forget our intentions as aspiring artists and do the same old shit for financial reasons. Thanks for the recall!

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