Hollywood Eats its Own Brain

Jun 5, 20:54 by IROSF

A thread to discuss science fiction in film.

The article can be found here.
Jun 6, 03:18 by Joe Haldeman
Very accurate and concise, MaryAnn.

Is there hope in the indies, in the art houses? Or are those venues so small their cultural effect is invisible?

Joe Haldeman
Jun 6, 06:38 by David Bartell
Well said, MaryAnn. (Hi Joe.)

I would add that Spielberg also made "Hook" on a big budget. After it flopped, he lamented that it was too bad, because now no one would invest in "big pictures" anymore. It was as if he was taking the blame for ruining it for everyone. Of course, he proved wrong, but it's an interesting footnote.

Another problem is that big budget movies can't make a profit without foreign sales. That's factored into the amount of money a film is given. On the good side, this is why LOTR was made the way it was. On the down side, (or maybe in the middle) blow-up movies with stars like Arnold will always be made. The action is what sells to a lot of international markets. Cerebral concepts do not.

So I think we will live with big mindless comic book movies, hopefully fun ones. For better SF, I think what has to happen is that somehow filmmakers come to terms with SF movies that are not necessarily big budget. It can be done - e.g. Gattica, Silent Running, and a few others - but does not have the get-rich-quick appeal of the blockbuster.

David Bartell
Jun 6, 07:56 by MaryAnn Johanson
Is there hope in the indies, in the art houses? Or are those venues so small their cultural effect is invisible?

There are good SF films coming out of non-Hollywood venues. I mentioned a couple: Code 46 is a British film; Primer was made by a couple of guys in Texas on some absurb budget like $40,000. And I do think that the blockbuster mindset driving Hollywood will have to slow down -- it's not sustainable, and we're already seeing the salaries of the biggest stars (which have helped pump up film budgets) starting to come down; some major stars, like Tom Hanks, reportedly eschew salary altogether in lieu of a cut of the profit. If Hollywood is forced to contract, I think then we may start seeing more thoughtful films of all kinds, SF included, once again.

But I doubt we'll ever see another thinky SF film that will have the cultural impact of, say, 2001: A Space Odyssey -- there's just too much competition not just from the hundreds of films released every year but also from videogames and TV. But we're seeing culturally impactful SF on TV right now, like Lost and Battlestar Galactica. In fact, the amazing success of Lost obviously means that audiences are capable of enjoying and sticking with a story that demands analysis and debate and discussion. Perhaps someone on the movie side in Hollywood will realize this and try something similar on film soon.
Jun 6, 08:06 by MaryAnn Johanson
Another problem is that big budget movies can't make a profit without foreign sales. That's factored into the amount of money a film is given.

Well, sure. But not every film has to be a blockbuster. If you don't spend $200 million on a film (and that's not even counting the cost of promotion and marketing and prints, which cost a fortune), then you don't need to open it on 3,000 screens in Asia to make a profit. A small, thoughtful film that cost only $7 million to make doesn't need to open globally to make some dough.

I've been saying this for years: If I were a studio exec, I'd take just one block of $100 million, and instead of taking a chance on just one big dumb flick that might just about earn back its budget, I'd give ten hungry young filmmakers $10 million each, or 20 hungry young filmmakers $5 million each -- and if only one of the films they make is a hit, or only one of those films produces a new star, the investment will have been worth it.

You mentioned Gattaca -- that is one of the best SF films ever made. Of course, it has not yet earned back its budget, which is why we haven't seen other films like that again. I bet Gattaca would have done better released today than it did back in 1997 -- there'd be a big push online for it, and the word-of-mouth online might have helped boost its box office.
Jun 7, 10:41 by Rogelio Mendoza
"X-Men: The Last Stand" is currently showing in the same art house theatre where I first saw such films as "Like Water For Chocolate" and "Run, Lola, Run."

And sadly, it's not the first "mainstream" film to play there. That doesn't exactly make me optimistic about the future of science fiction in the indie/arthouse world...
Jun 8, 05:49 by A.R. Yngve
There will always be a market for over-budgeted special-effects movies. But never mind that.

So what of the low-budget SF films? PRIMER should be an example for the rest of us. If you want to make a low-budget, cerebral SF film -- just do it! Grab a digital video camera, write a script, and find some actors.

If you want something done properly, you'll have to do it yourself...

Jun 8, 10:37 by Bluejack
Are there any others like primer? It always comes up because it's like the only competant home-made sci fi film anyone has seen... is it *really* the only one?
Jun 8, 15:19 by Richard Lovett
Interesting clan who's migrated here! I logged in to see if Gattaca had ever turned a profit. I suspect that today it could be done cheaper. But I belong to a Monday movie group, and when it comes to sf, that's a depressing experience. "It's science fiction; it's not supposed to make sense" is the mantra of everyone under a certain age, and they're not just trying to goose me when they say it: they believe it.

What about "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind?" I thought it had considerable sfnal merit. Or did it just shine in comparison to the other 51 movies my group saw that year? Most of the other people didn't like it, which in memory stands as a good sign.
Jun 9, 14:46 by Robin Zimmermann
What about "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind?" I thought it had considerable sfnal merit. Or did it just shine in comparison to the other 51 movies my group saw that year? Most of the other people didn't like it, which in memory stands as a good sign.

"Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" was, in my opinion, science fiction of the best kind. I think a major reason for its failure with audiences is that too many people (most aggravatingly, including the writers of the DVD box) think of Jim Carrey as as the kind of actor who plays Ace Ventura than think of him as the kind of actor who also plays Truman Burbank (and that's another sorta-recent example of SF, though probably a weaker one). In fact, I went into this forum thread specifically to mention "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind".
Jun 13, 07:03 by peter heyneman
There are other sf art-house movies that barely even register as sf to audiences since they don't have aliens and ray-guns. PI or 2046 come to mind.

But I'm not even sure I understand the premise of the article. Aren't these big-budget failures just low-quality SF? It seems like Ms. Johanson is saying that SF is SF when it's good, but not when it's not. I wish we could draw in the borders of our favorite genres when they are misused, but I don't think we have that luxury.

Anyway, interesting piece...love the magazine!
Jun 27, 10:36 by Adrian Simmons
Okay, I'm getting into this late. Still, I've often heard it said that the best form for science fiction is the short form- the magazines like Astoudning and Asimov's and Analog. I've heard it said that a short story can be built around a thought experiment, but a novel is a lot harder.

I have to wonder if the same is true with film. Maybe sci-fi really begs to be on television- uld skool, like The Twilight Zone and some of the original Star Trek episodes (I'm sure that some of the later Trek series delved into some good SF territory, but I can't recall any particular episodes right now).

Oct 24, 18:00 by D. Nicklin-Dunbar
A very concise and informative article. I agree wholeheartedly. The mega-blockbuster has killed not only the SF film, but intelligent films in general. Intelligent SF film is still being made, as several posters have pointed out. Pi, 2046, Gattica, Children of Men amoung others have managed to evade the Hollywood heavy handedness that has given us Independance Day and (shudder) the three new Star Wars films.
SF, in my opinion, has fared better on the small screen. The inevitable Star Trek franchise kept it alive enough for other series to at least get made. While I will incur the wrath of several Trek fans, most of what was put out in this franchise was SF of the worst sort: unintelligent, uninteresting and uninformative.
To be sure, several of ST:TNG episodes were superb. "Darmok", "The Measure of Man" and "The Best of Both Worlds" are what Star Trek could achieve when the stars were right; Voyager is what we were given instead. Of them all, I would say that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is the most consistant in tone, feel, and story. But even there, the writers took a lesson from the far more intelligent (if not more successful) Babylon 5.
B5 is what television SF is supposed to be: and excellent balance between big screen action, social and political commentary, character evolution and entertaining story. Contemporaneous television SF really couldn't compare with Babylon 5. Sliders, while interesting in concept, really didn't go anywhere until the writers decided on a recurring plot (like B5), and Stargate was still born.
There were, however, a few gems ignored by the fans while they were putting on their StarFleet uniforms to watch the kindler, gentler, politically correct Federation take a soft touch on everything.
Total Recall 2070 was a smart, slick, stylish fusion of Asimov, Phil Dick and Raymond Chandler. The whole series, from the pilot to its too soon finale, was an extended commentary and investigation of the social and political consequences of a wide variety of technologies. Not an episode went by without the impact of the future being starkly shown. Alas, it has never been rereleased on DVD.
Earth 2 had and interesting premise, some clever turns and good potential. Sadly cancelled before it could show what it was made of. Anything with Clancy Brown in it can't be all bad. Luckily Fox released the whole run on DVD so is not lost to the tides and time.
Believe it or not, Space: Above & Beyond deserves more credit than it was ever given. Despite its somewhat cheesy, too ernest, Tour of Duty in space premise, at least the world and techonology was well thought out, consistent and relatively believable. Several episodes were well written, with clear commentary on society, politics and technology, and some were just damn good stories.
As one poster above mentioned, science fiction excels at the short format. So too does it have the chance to excel on the small screen.

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