As Toronto Unveils Inventive Oscar Films, Why Can't Hollywood Prize Originality Too?

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.

    1. I hope a lot of executives read this especially the line –

      “marketing executives know how to sell with trailers that give away too much.”

      SO many of these trailers reveal plot points they give no room for discovery. Instead of making me excited to see it…the mystery is gone.

      And I’m sure there are a number of really great filmmakers who would rather work on something original in the 20-40 million dollar range than these bloated unoriginal tired retreads, remakes, mindless snooze material.

      1. That sentence made me think of the trailer for “The Town.” After seeing its trailer, I didn’t feel as if I could say, “That looks like a good film.”

        I felt like I could say, “That was a good film!”

      2. This has always been the way. Youtube the trailer for “the Graduate.” It gives away every moment of the film including the ending.

  1. The word “originality” comes up in executive meetings because the executive asks, “How do you spell originality? It isn’t on my spell check.”

  2. Great piece, Mike, if unsurprising to anyone who’s been following this stuff here.

    But FYI, I know at least one prolific and successful screenwriter who claims to have rewritten a lot of Despicable Me, so — so much for the single vision theory.

    1. FYI, that “prolific and successful screenwriter” is claiming something that’s not even remotely true. We used a couple of lines from a comic punch-up writer, but Ken and I were on Despicable Me from start to finish, and no one else had anything even approaching a significant role in writing it.

      And, Mike–great article!

    1. But the majority of the most successful movies of all time were a combination of originality and commerce. People went to see “Star Wars”, “Avitar”, “E.T.”, “Gone With The Wind”, “The Godfather”, Everything Pixar’s done (even Toy Story’s sequels are original in their approach to how a sequel should be made)… because they were told they were going to see a movie they’d never experienced before. And the big bucks paid off, now didn’t they?

        1. True, but I think cahonayes meant that the adaptation of Gone with the Wind broke ground in so many ways (special effects, length, content etc) that it counts as a movie audiences had never experienced before.

  3. Clearly the way ahead is for the market to pursue more anomalies. Now there’s a concept to make an executive’s head explode.

    I’ve seen how they’ll spend good money on a writer’s development deal and urge him/her to original thinking, then to measure every pitched idea against their own ‘market wisdom’ and find a reason to turn it down.

  4. TOTALLY agree with ALL of your piece Mike, except point B.

    Speaking strictly for novelists and comic-book properties I think
    certain rights holders have an absolute right to protect what they’ve created from studios who are clueless as to why the property is popular in the first place. These hotshot filmmakers think they’re so darn clever and decide to make the idea “better” by changing nearly everything about it, and adding what the filmmaker personally thinks would be “cool” or “more marketable” –usually proving to be neither! The result? The movie bombs.

    And while the studio moves on to the next project, the rights holders is the one stuck with their name being associated with the crappy movie. If studios want total control like that, they should pay through the nose for it so the rights holder is covered when the movie inevitably fails.

    And while it’s perhaps true rights holders “don’t know the first thing about making a good movie,” given the glut of garbage the studios have been churning out obviously the studios don’t know the first thing about making a good movie either.

    1. The issue isn’t that the rights holders are at fault. It’s that the studios are losing money because they keep making “PREVIOUSLY CREATED” material, and not making as much money because the rights holders get first dibs. Since we’re talking about why the studios are in a jam, they should consider the fact that they don’t owe as much outside dues if they start producing “original” material.

  5. Great piece Mike. But the last paragraph says it all. Look at that list. Its comic books.

    I feel like a broken record because I’ve said this for the longest time here, but the business model is seriously flawed. If Hollywood wants to increase their profit margins then a collective effort has to be made to 1)Concentrate on scripts with strong narratives — take some creative risks. 2)End the 3D madness which essentially is price gouging. 3)Reduce ticket prices to an even price of $8.00 — all shows.

  6. If you are speaking about the seemingly-eternal struggle between art and commerce than I suppose there is indeed something to that, Paw. However, if that is indeed the case than why should anyone bother trying to do anything not mediocre or insanely familiar?

  7. Many, many writers worked on Despicable Me, and it owes much to Dr. Evil. It was a good piece of business but it was not nearly as original as Up, Wall-E, etc

    1. Ken and I wrote Despicable Me, from start to finish. As I mentioned up above, one comic punch-up writer got a few lines in, but no one besides us played anything even close to a significant role. Anyone who tells you otherwise has no idea what they’re talking about.

  8. THANK YOU SO MUCH for writing this article. I’ve been saying it for years — that the industry is actually killing itself with inferior, uninteresting product — and it’s very refreshing to read about it.

  9. In my experience, the best development execs now work in television, not at the studios. Many TV execs are focused on the audience, on the entertainment value of their product, on coming up with something new and fresh. Studio development execs seem more intent on their careers and not saying no to anyone’s face.

    1. This is absolutely correct. Studio execs only work towards the next wrung on the ladder and are afraid of being fired by the person above them. They play it safe, boring and take no chances.

      1. I hate to write this but a friend of mine was an exec at a movie prod co at a major studio — she held that position for nearly ten years and *never* made a call on a project. Never fought passionately for a book or a script or a writer. Can you imagine the inane chatter at breakfasts, lunches and dinners – the endless weekend reads, the faux-friends, etc. What a way to spend a career. But the salary and the perks were always there, the invites to Academy and studio screenings. The BS part of the biz that becomes the goal for so many.

    2. Thank you, Mark. Even last week’s Emmys showed the high caliber of what audiences can often see on both cable and network TV nowadays (reality shows excluded!). Whereas this summer’s crop of theatrical movies was the worst within recent memory.

  10. Quick somewhat-related Q: any readers on here also aspiring or already broken-in producers who aren’t satisfied with the way Hollywood and Co. by and large is doing things?

  11. One of the biggest problems for writers is the one-step deal so many studios are making.
    It discourages the writer from taking great, innovative chances because we so want
    the studio to trigger the second step. So instead of writing out of pure inspiration, we
    can end up writing out of fear or concern for $$ which leads to less originality. BIG MISTAKE on the part of studios.

  12. “One-step deals are bad for movies because a writer is going to write conservatively. They’re not going to take any creative risk because they’re afraid of getting fired.”

    In the real world, when one only has one shot at the gold, he goes balls-out to win. Those who don’t are pussies who will always lose.

    Seriously – when was the last time ‘conservative’ won the Super Bowl? (Answer: never.)

    1. I agree. If the writer can’t deliver the goods with the first pass, the wrong writer was hired and, frankly, should give the money back less commissions. There are far too many hacks in this business and those of us that actually CAN write need to be given the opportunity to shine.

      Thank you.

    2. Frank1569,

      You don’t give the quarterback one play though, do you? You trust him and work with him throughout. If you can’t find a solid quarterback and have the stones to stick with your choice, maybe you shouldn’t be the coach.

      Writing is rewriting. Not revising a piece of writing is like priming bare wood and then not painting it. If studios hire other writers for every draft, they’ll just keep paying for first drafts. A lot of pictures these days look like first drafts: a few good ideas held together in one messy whole.

  13. Thank you for this piece. Can it just be the 1980s again, when the original characters of BODY HEAT, WITNESS, MOONSTRUCK, BROADCAST NEWS, THE VERDICT, ROMANCING THE STONE, and THE BIG CHILL were celebrated at the box office?

  14. I’m surprised there is not much buzz about “Milk” writer, Dustin Lance Black’s film “What’s Wrong With Virginia” staring Oscar winner Jennifer Connelly and Ed Harris. I think that the people who want to see change and a new type of film will ultimately be happy with the way this film has turned out. It’s new style of artistic value and character driven plot will stand out. This film is also premiering at TIFF.

  15. Your reporting is spot on. It’s brutal out there right now. Ideas that I would have pitched two years ago are on the shelf. If a concept doesn’t have “tentpole” potential, it’s a non-starter. Hollywood is in a creative contraction, which I believe will pass. I’m glad to see originals are thriving in Toronto. When they start making money (and let’s be honest, in recent years they have largely tanked) Hollywood will outgrow its contraction. Meantime, I’m going to think about a three-act structure for etch-a-sketch.

    1. And makes for a less than satisfactory experience of the audience, so much so that they would not recommend their friends watch a re-broadcast of the game later…

  16. Thanks Mike. Great and timely article.

    As a guy trying to make it in this biz I too agree that the marketers should not be allowed at greenlight meetings, but it seems they’re running the show these days. If a marketing guru is paid to market the film…..then they should stick to bloody marketing it. What the hell are they doing having that sort of Roman ‘thumbs up or thumbs down’ power anyway? The studio execs need to have some balls and simply remind the marketing divisions that they are there to sell the studios’ products and if they can’t do it then they can go drown slowly in a latte.

    We all know we’re never gonna move away from existing source materials making it on screen, but this past summer was atrocious, and the marketing twats are making the studio execs believe that they know what the people wanna see. These lazy bastards just don’t wanna think and work as hard to sell original stuff, that’s all. But guess what? As this past summer proved, people wanna see fresh stories, worlds and characters.

    But alas, the tail is wagging the rabies infested dog it seems.

  17. Great article, and it does bring up some very insightful points on the flaw in the hollywood system. I would go one step further and point out that business people (like marketers) not creatives are running the studios and hence the proliferation in marketing getting a say in film selection.

    But another more ominous point is that the studios need to stop hiring agents as development people. If you want to bring creativity back to hollywood, hire creative people to make the decisions. Agents turned development execs are responsible for the “band wagon” mentality that plagues Hollywood. Keep the agents doing what they do well – being agents. That would be the best start at fixing the system.

  18. Mike, thank you for this. Indie producers always look for spec material, but it’s heartening to hear that studios are opening their ears and minds again as well. I happen to LIKE big budget movies. But I do get tired of watching the same thing over and over again, but with different actors.

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