More than Sundance, Cannes, or even Telluride, the Toronto International Film Festival is where quality films come to strut, and where the groundswell of Oscar buzz really starts. For film purists, it is also the official end of summer and, hopefully, a parade of original films largely missing among this summer’s Hollywood films. While 75% of major studio releases this summer were remakes, sequels, or adaptations generated by arm-long lists of writers, Toronto will inject some excitement with a slate heavy on inventiveness. That’s why it likely will announce both Best Picture candidates and a slew of Best Actor and Best Actress contenders.
The films with the most heat are divided between those that are original and those based on existing material. They include Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours with James Franco, Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech with Colin Firth, Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan with Natalie Portman, Larysa Kondrack’s sex trafficking drama The Whistleblower with Rachel Weisz, John Cameron Mitchell’s The Rabbit Hole with Nicole Kidman, and Robert Redford’s Lincoln assassination tale The Conspirator, starring James McAvoy and Robin Wright and which has arguably the highest wanna-see of the films available for acquisition. There is also Ben Affleck’s much talked-about The Town, and the Clint Eastwood-directed Hereafter, which will be seen for the first time by most pundits. Also at Toronto are Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Biutiful, which won a Best Actor prize for Javier Bardem at Cannes, and Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine, whose top-notch performances by Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling unveiled at Sundance and then Cannes.
Done well, originality in festival films pays off. Whereas the branded films that Hollywood generated this summer were for the most part underperforming. Revenues were up slightly only because of higher 3D ticket prices, and attendance was down to the lowest level since 2007. But there was a 3-week period in July that saw Universal and Illumination release Despicable Me, Warner Bros and Legendary Pictures follow with Inception, and then Sony Pictures release Salt. It felt like somebody opened a window and let in fresh air. Audiences responded, and box office soared. It wasn’t a coincidence that all three movies saw the same writer who started the pic survive until the end. (Though I’ve heard that Salt scribe Kurt Wimmer had some uncredited help from Brian Helgeland).
I asked a group of well-established writers, executives and dealmakers to list the factors preventing originality in Hollywood films:
A) An aversion to risk-taking which is a lingering byproduct of the recession and credit crunch. “Studio executives are always afraid of taking risks unless they can point to a big success,” said one writer’s agent. “If a Western did well, they’d want another Western, and they’d get a lot of bad Westerns.”
B) An over-reliance on “branded” properties that became prevalent over the last several years. Rights holders got first dollar gross deals and say over creative issues and release deadlines, even though they don’t know the first thing about making a good movie.
C) The rise of one-step screenwriter deals and sweepstakes pitching (where multiple writers compete for a job by pitching ideas for the same assignment). Several writers admitted to me that when their priority is advancing to the next draft, originality goes out the window. They try to please studio executives and producers who thrive in a comfort zone of sameness.
D) The growing influence of marketing executives in the selection of films that get made. Those executives favor films they know how to sell, which means films they’ve sold before.
“I hope this summer’s movies like Despicable Me and Inception reinvigorate the industry’s belief in original ideas,” said Illumination founder Chris Meledandri, whose Despicable Me has surpassed Shrek Forever After, Kung-Fu Panda, Happy Feet, Ratatouille, Madagascar, and two Ice Age films on the domestic gross chart. “The whole industry needs to swing back from the reliance on pre-awareness. Audiences also thrive on the discovery of new characters, stories and worlds. From a business perspective, today’s fresh ideas have the potential to become tomorrow’s franchises.”
Skeptics argue that both Despicable Me and Inception were anomalies. The former got its $69 million budget because Meledandri wanted it to be Illumination’s first film, after Universal hired him away from a successful run at Fox Animation. Inception was more unlikely. Warner Bros execs, waiting for director Chris Nolan to do another Batman, were surprised when he instead dropped the Inception spec script in their laps. The studio let Nolan loose on an idea that rattled around his head for a decade before he put it on paper. Would anyone have approved $160 million for such an impossible-to-explain-in-a-sentence film if the director hadn’t been Nolan?
Still, motion picture lit agents are encouraged. They tell me the word “originality” is coming up often in meetings with studio execs. “Now, we’re on the originality train. It is at least encouraging to have conversations where they aren’t closing doors on anything but branded projects. They’re saying we need new IP.” So agents are pushing their clients to write — gasp! — spec scripts, rather than strictly compete for assignments. “The best thing about Inception was that Nolan didn’t follow The Dark Knight by taking a fat payday, he wrote a spec,” said one writer’s rep. “Writers haven’t been doing specs because there was no room in the marketplace for them. Our clients would say, ‘how are you going to sell my script if you tell me all they want to make is something with a Hasbro tie-in?’”
Some studios, like Warner Bros and Fox, have begun to rethink their allegiance to one-step deals. While there are financial advantages to those pacts for the studios, who don’t have to pay extra steps to writers who tank first drafts, writers say the process isn’t at all conducive to originality. And a lot of money is spent on a succession of rewrites. Some feel it’s no coincidence that both Despicable Me (Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul) and Inception (Nolan) had the same writer all the way through, giving those films a sense of authorship.
“One-step deals are bad for movies because a writer is going to write conservatively,” said screenwriter Billy Ray. “They’re not going to take any creative risk because they’re afraid of getting fired. They will write a down-the-middle, unobjectionable draft that doesn’t take chances. The other problem with one step deals is, the writer isn’t sure they’ll be kept alive for second and third step, and that means thinking about that next job. So while that writer is working, he’s also taking calls him his agent, having lunches with producers, or reading other books in search of the next gig. You have to do this.”
Ray said the one-steps also leave writers at the mercy of producers who get the drafts first. “It artificially empowers producers, who say to the writer after he turns in that first draft, ‘Gee, you get one shot at this, don’t you want to execute these notes and make it better?’ These revisions may or may not be what the studio wants. The producer has become the cut-off man between the writer and studio. On all these levels, I am not objecting because writers are being wronged, which I think they are. I am objecting because this process yields a lesser movie, which is bad for everybody.”
The other enemy of originality is the studio emphasis on only making movies their marketing team knows they can sell. It’s harder and more expensive to sell an original idea. How does a challenging movie get past the greenlight committee if the studio’s marketing chief sits there shaking his head? “Kick the head of marketing out of the green light meetings, and challenge them to figure out a way to sell the movies that the production team wants to make,” a major producer suggested. “Inception was as big a marketing challenge as The Matrix, but they smartly didn’t try to explain the movie, just showed you visuals that made the audience feel they had to see it. Studios are too shackled to familiar films that marketing executives know how to sell with trailers that give away too much. They have to get out of their comfort zones.”
The biggest take-away of the summer successes: studios are looking for the next Chris Nolan to bet on. Though it hasn’t been without turbulence, Warner Bros is about to place a big bet on Alfonso Cuaron with the $80 million 3D film Gravity, which Cuaron wrote with his son Jonas. Disney fought off all comers for the futuristic Oblivion, paying a higher than normal acquisition price for a graphic novel because Tron: Legacy director Joseph Kosinski hatched the story and might want to make it his next film. Disney wasn’t letting him get away. Universal Pictures is spending north of $100 million on Guillermo del Toro and his dream project At the Mountains of Madness, a 3D logistically ambitious South Pole-set horror film based on an HP Lovecraft tale. OK, it’s not original. But the studio’s production team has long eyed del Toro as a cornerstone filmmaker, and they have allowed him to swing for the fences.
But before anyone gets too optimistic about the future, remember this: As summer was coming to a close, Hollywood’s highest profile helmings and castings were for X-Men Origins: First Class, Wolverine 2, Clash of the Titans 2, Men in Black 3, Mission: Impossible 4, and Battleship, based on the board game.