Reader Jack Ketch commented on Why film schools teach screenwriters not to pass the Bechdel test something I think deserves more discussion:
William Goldman described the phrase “non-recurring phenomenon” in his book The Big Picture, a collection of essays discussing movies with studio execs during the 90s; any film that had success while challenging the prevalent assumptions was described as a “non-recurring phenomenon” by the studio execs to explain why they wouldn’t repeat what had been successful.
The primary example was The First Wives Club; Bette Midler, Diane Keaton, and Goldie Hawn pulled in almost $20 million the opening weekend, and finished over $100 million domestic. There’s obviously an audience for films with older (by Hollywood standards), female leads, why aren’t the studios making more of them Goldman asked? Because that film was a “non-recurring phenomenon” was the answer.
Goldman’s explanation was that the studio execs, the moguls and big shots who decide what movies get made, are terrified that people will find out that they really don’t know anything at all; they can always explain away a failure, but a movie that succeeds when common wisdom says it shouldn’t truly threatens them. So they perpetuate the common wisdom by not making those films in the first place, not because they’re afraid that the films will fail, but because they’re afraid that they’ll succeed.
The reason why big shots would fear people finding out that “nobody knows anything” is simple: financiers pour millions into every movie that gets made. Studios aren’t sitting around with kajillions in the bank – they have to convince people with money to back their movies, and those people expect a good return on their investment. Movies are speculative ventures, and no one likes to speculate wildly. Investors like to hear what sounds like convincing evidence that a movie they’re backing will make them money.
The age-old example here is the original Star Wars. It wasn’t supposed to make more than a modest profit (and that, only because it was so low budget). Fox thought it was crap. To their amazement, it lined people up around the block on the first day. It launched a merchandise line that’s still churning obnoxiously (but so profitably) to this day. It launched an amazingly successful franchise. All because – despite being a rip-off of any number of artistically superior movies – it wasn’t quite like anything anyone had seen before.
Lucas had made a movie people didn’t know they wanted to see. If you’d polled them, they wouldn’t have promised to see it. If you’d made something similar to test the waters, it might have flopped laughably (many similar movies have). In short, there was no predicting the success of one of the most successful movies of all time.
Sometimes it feels like film execs have spent the last three decades just trying to make sure nothing like that ever happens again. And that’s basically what Goldman is saying: they are more afraid of having to explain a success that breaks the mold than of explaining a failure that fits it. Everybody knows at the end of the day no stock expert can guarantee you the right investments – no movie is guaranteed, either. But when a movie succeeds inexplicably, potential investors start to wonder if you really know what the audience wants to see.
You handle this by sticking to the formula and memorizing a lot of excuses that always back the formula. That way, when financiers – or half your young screenwriting class – ask why Aliens, Terminator, and Silence of the Lambs did well with men despite female leads, or ask why a ‘chick flick’ called Titanic still holds the record for highest grossing film of all time, or why First Wives’ Club did well, or why did Buffy and Alias perform well enough to make it the all-important five years, or why women clearly went to see The Matrix movies and the Star Wars prequels, you can rattle off the most appropriate of these “reasons”:
- Because of the male leads.
- Because of the famous male director.
- Because of the special effects.
- Because of the tightly paced story.
- Because of the romance.
- Because there was no competition that summer/time slot.
- Because of the marketing.
- Women only went because their boyfriends dragged them along.
- Men only went because their girlfriends dragged them along (this one only really works on Titanic)
- Women will watch anything, so they don’t count.
- Dismiss the TV shows as not indicative of movie trends.
- Dismiss the movie trends as not indicative of TV trends.
- If all else fails, obfuscate, lie and say you’ve got to be somewhere else but you’ll finish the discussion later.
If you convince yourself only the formula is right and anything outside the formula is wrong, your logic warps, freeing you to come up with all sorts of rationalizations. If you sell them well enough, the financiers buy them and you get your movie made. If the movie flops, there’s a whole other bunch of excuses for that eventuality.
You can’t have marketing data that proves a type of movie is viable unless you make that movie. How can we prove what audiences want to see if we don’t have filmmakers trying new things? If every filmmaker who tries to make something new is stopped dead by an industry that’s convinced its backers not to try anything new?
And when’s the last time you saw a movie featuring a woman get a boost from the sort of marketing campaign most big (and therefore male-led) movies get? Even Silence of the Lambs was a slow starter. Is it that studios assume a female-led movie won’t make it, or that they don’t want them to succeed? And what about ‘chick flicks,’ which never get the kind of marketing big movies get, yet are consistently quite profitable because they’re so cheap to make (like ‘em or not)?
With Sex in the City, we’re seeing once more that Hollywood is flabbergasted to discover women go to theaters without men:
Does this sound familiar? Didn’t we have this conversation with Hollywood already, on the occasion of the 1995 surprise hit Waiting to Exhale and the 2001 surprise hit The Princess Diaries and the 2002 surprise hit My Big Fat Greek Wedding and the 2006 surprise hit The Devil Wears Prada and the January surprise hit 27 Dresses? When industry professionals are rendered wide-eyed with shock by the same piece of information again and again, only two explanations (besides Botox) are possible: They’re either, for lack of a daintier term, stupid, or they’re deeply invested in pretending that the power of the female moviegoing audience is…surprising.
They’re not stupid. So what gives? ”Surprising,” in this context, connotes something that isn’t supposed to happen, something that, in a business that depends on predictability, may even be undesirable. But calling something a surprise is also a reminder that it constitutes an exception to the rule, and thus provides reassurance that the rule still exists.
I’ll leave you on that note, because you really should go read that article. He makes the point wonderfully.