Coming to theaters: a stupid concept, a sloppy sequel, or a passé re-tread. No wonder no one wants to go to the movies anymore. The Prom Night remake and the Sex and the City movie exemplify what Variety’s Peter Bart once identified as a “bankruptcy of ideas.” Studios can ignore the bombast of a crotchety old wonk, but the fact is audiences can no longer justify paying $12 to $15 per person for the theatrical experience. As a result, “The Biz” is out taking a whiz.
If there is original material out there, it seems that studios do not want to pay for it. Complicit writers also rush out retreads to maximize profits for minimal effort. The grudging resolution of the 2007 writer’s strike suggests both sides are actively avoiding risk and as a result, using audiences and their money as lab rats in their experiments gone awry.
Adaptations and re-imaginations are the order of the day. The problem is that anything goes and these projects often fail to respect the histories, legacies and constituencies of the originals. Can anyone else really wear Captain Kirk’s toupee with as much bravado as William Shatner?
Dark Knight Do-Overs
Occasionally, I will concede, there is a need for a do-over. The reinvention of the Batman character is a perfect example.
Although I was skeptical about Batman Begins, writer David Goyer and director Christopher Nolan’s incarnation is not only superior to the previous film iterations, it transcended the character’s comic book roots. Batman became a fresh character and relevant to the 21st century. Its cinematography and set design brought the character into a more realistic setting. Christian Bale’s portrayal humanized both Batman and his alter ego, Bruce Wayne and made them more accessible. Audiences got the feeling that with enough fortitude, financing and physical fitness, they too could become the Batman.
Still, it took Warner Brothers eight years, several animated incarnations and Sandy Collora’s fan film, Batman: Dead End to revitalize the franchise and live down directors Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher’s uninformed and unrepentant perversion of the character. The cardinal transgression was what screenwriting guru Lew Hunter calls, “splitting your heavies.” In other words, multiplying villains in the absence of real story. It diluted plot, made characters shallow, their motivations monotone, and their interactions implausible.
Batman Returns, Batman Forever and Batman and Robin also combined unprincipled screenwriting with distracting gimmicks and the incongruous silliness of TV’s Batman. As the movies became progressively more absurd, the return of Adam West and Burt Ward to the title roles might have actually lent the series plausibility. Thankfully though, the studio stopped short of having the dynamic duo coming out of the Bat-closet with pierced nipples and assless chaps and moving to West Hollywood to play house. With three shaky sequels under its utility belt, it made sense for Warner Brothers to go back to formula.
Riding to Hell
The risk paid off with Batman. With other comic book properties, however, just because you can, does not mean you should bring it to the big screen. The problem is poor conception, development and execution. Studios waste money rushing to secure rights for no motive other than profit and with no passion other than beating their competition to market.
The dealmakers attach hot actors to roles at a premium instead of casting the right actors for reasonable fees. They then hire some hack who may not understand the character’s lore to pen a script. Afterwards there is potential for an equally impudent director to shoot the picture. The studio then cobbles together the pieces and releases it before the option expires. As a result, they often confound, if not alienate the fan base.
Ghost Rider exemplifies such logic. I like the Ghost Rider character and the idea of a man, Johnny Blaze, turning into an avenging demon. Separately, I also like Nicholas Cage, but Cage is neither Johnny Blaze nor his alter ego, Ghost Rider. Sony would have done better to spend conservatively and cast someone like Guy Pearce as Blaze. Christian Bale was arguably as esoteric an actor and his roles as eclectic as Pearce’s before Batman Begins. By casting Bale, Warner Brothers gambled people were coming for Batman. Sony expected Cage’s fan base to pay unquestioningly to hitch a ride on Ghost Rider’s chopper and leave Las Vegas.
The problem was not a bad movie, but that Cage amalgamates all his Elvis inspired characters from Raising Arizona, Wild at Heart and Honeymoon in Vegas in his portrayal of the adult Johnny Blaze. Thus, the character is out of step with the rest of the movie. I would argue that because of this dissonance, it took the movie longer to find its audience. As such, Sony took six weekends to recoup its investment on Ghost Rider. Warner found its audience faster and recouped its money within three weekends on Batman Begins.
Follow the Money
It is almost procedural for storytelling and character development in filmmaking to take a backseat to financial considerations. Because movie budgets are so bloated with overpriced options, ridiculous writers’ fees and star salaries, there is much more pressure to profiteer. As a result, movies often have fewer weekends to make their money back because the next “blockbuster” is coming soon. The failsafe logic is that as a big star’s involvement insulates the dealmakers against culpability and firing, even if a big-budget movie flops.
Studio collateral strategies include marketing ploys that pander to key demographics rather than deliver well-developed sympathetic characters and an engaging story. The result is the customers are thinking twice about an evening at the movies in favor of DVD and Video on Demand formats.
Jack Nicholson said it best as the Joker in the 1989 Batman, “this town needs an enema.”