Earlier this year, I went out with a spec script, a thriller about an American criminologist and his British cop mentor who uncover a terrorist plot to blow up Wembley Stadium during the World Cup final. I conceived the story with a good buddy of mine who is, himself, a criminologist in England, so all the details are 100 percent dead on. The way the system works, the investigation, the procedures, the technology, the threat, all of it, which is why it’s not just another James Bond flick. No suspension of disbelief here, this story could actually happen.
This, it turns out, was both a blessing and a curse for those who read it. Pretty much everyone liked it a great deal, it’s just that they were all terrified of it, because of that hyper-realism. One friend of mine at a major studio actually said to me, “I can’t make this right now. After Paris, and Manchester, and that bus attack in London? I think you need to wait a couple years, hope that some of this dies down. Even then, if something happens near that movie’s release date, what do we do? Move the release? There’s millions of dollars on the line here. We can’t just piss that away.”
I wanted to argue the point, but I understood where he was coming from, and instead bit back my frustration about having a project that was too close to reality and, therefore, too scary to actually make. For now, at least. Anyway, as I have tried not to dwell too much on this over the last few months, the truly awful opening weekend suffered by Geostorm sort of reopened the wound a bit, while also forcing me to look at the bigger picture, and how the real world is genuinely starting to intrude on the kinds of movies that are being made.
I touched on this a bit about a week and a half ago, when I wondered aloud if the ongoing sexual harassment and abuse scandals might change the way we’re going to tell our stories. My answer remains no, but it’s clear that external forces are, in fact, affecting the decision-making process of those who decide which films get made and which do not. Some things, it’s clear, are scarier to those in charge than others. Gun violence, for instance, is something that happens literally every day in this country, but only when a major tragedy like Las Vegas occurs is a movie or TV show affected, and even then, only temporarily. But the war on terror? Or a really good, hard-hitting political thriller in the current climate? Or anything even remotely edgy and daring? That’s a different story.
I haven’t seen Geostorm yet, but I can tell you that nothing in the marketing campaign made me want to. It’s not that it had exactly zero to do with the recent hurricane, wildfire, and earthquake disasters that deter my interest in the film, it’s that it looked stupid and everyone to whom I spoke about it felt the same way. Still, there have been enough lousy movies with strong openings to make the alternate point, that the timing on this one was just about as bad as can be. Thus, if you take that side of things, it supports my friend’s concerns, which returns me to the overall: that, moving forward, some things are probably going to be off limits. Not in a censorship sort of way, mind you, but rather because of the abject fear of losing money, rather than actually upsetting people. This, obviously and without question, is the scariest thing any Hollywood executive faces on any given day.
The thing is, studios like to think they’re sensitive about this sort of thing, but that’s all relative. They don’t actually take a moment to think about or investigate why people are upset. They are reactionary, rather than displaying the slightest lick of forward-thinking. It’s like the way we all have to take our shoes off at the airport because one time, about 15 years ago, a single idiot tried to smuggle a bomb onto a plane in his sneaker. This isn’t the TSA, of course, it’s Hollywood, but you’d be surprised how often the similarities line up between operations that can both be called “occasionally inept.”
Which means we can expect a lot more of this moving forward, and that has a few different consequences. For one, it feels like yet another nail in the coffin of the realistic and/or hard-hitting drama or thriller that the studios used to make so well, but rarely do anymore. After all, Hollywood is really good at finding reasons not to do things, and if there is the possibility that something might happen which could even indirectly affect a particular project, that’s probably enough for most.
There’s also the failure to see the forest for the trees. I think that a studio wouldn’t hesitate to put an act of sexual aggression, harassment, or assault into one of its movies, whereas it would balk at telling a story about combatting terror. Even though the odds of someone being affected by the former are much more likely than the latter.
The result of all this is more “safe” stories, which ultimately leads to more mindlessness and silliness at the multiplex. That might work in the short term, but if this year’s execrable box office numbers are any indication, not in the long term. People in the executive suites are panicking precisely because no one is showing up to their movies, but rather than try a different tack, be proactive and try to take some chances to draw people back into the theaters, they are instead doubling down on what they‘ve been doing, to increasingly diminished returns.
I know there’s a lot of bad stuff happening in the world, and that we go to the movies at least partially to escape it all. More and more, any kind of realism is the domain of the indie world or television, but it doesn’t need to be. We don’t have to draw a line in the sand, or be skittish about what stories we can and can’t tell. Rather, we can tell those stories with a certain understanding, an awareness of what is going on around us and, in effect, as a response to that. Something heroic, something that audiences will appreciate because, essentially, we will trust them to do so. I know that’s something of an outlandish thought, but it has been known to happen that people show up to see a movie, even if it challenges them. Or do you think it was purely out of patriotism that American Sniper did over $350 million at the domestic box office? If that’s the case, why did it do almost $200 million more worldwide?
The issue is not just being overly safe. It’s more complicated than that. What it comes down to is that, with the studios, it’s about the fear of offending people, while also not being terribly sensitive about offending people. Depends entirely on the subject, and that will have everything to do with what kind of movies we’re going to be getting from here on out.