Friday, February 29, 2008

The Children of George and Steven, Part III - The Internet of Broken Dreams

Vanity Fair's recent cover story on INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL contained an interesting (though unsurprising) quote from George Lucas about what the potential fan reaction to the new film might be like:

“The fans are all upset,” Lucas says. “They’re always going to be upset. ‘Why did he do it like this? And why didn’t he do it like this?’ They write their own movie, and then, if you don’t do their movie, they get upset about it. So you just have to stand by for the bricks and the custard pies, because they’re going to come flying your way.”

There are two ways of looking at this: One, Lucas is just hitting back at his fans, the ones who helped make his empire by spending years worshiping the STAR WARS and INDIANA JONES series, for their griping over the STAR WARS prequels, which have been endlessly criticized despite all being mammothly successful at the box office (personally speaking, I like them all well enough). For years they loved and revered Lucas and then when he went back to the well like they had all been waiting for they hated what they got; changes to the original STAR WARS trilogy and then a new trilogy that didn't measure up to their standards, whatever those were. It was a divorce with kids involved, amicable but with a lot of post-divorce hate. You love the person you were married to for so long, love the kids, still respect that person, but the person they've become? That person is a stranger to you and you want little or nothing to do with them. Seeing the new INDIANA JONES films is tantamount to seeing your ex at your kid's high school graduation; you have to see them even though you don't want to, but you're really there because of your love of little Steven. Little Stevie Spielberg is what keeps the two of you talking to each other.

And the other way of looking at George's statement? He's 100% correct.

There is a segment of the audience that is extremely trepidatious and almost all of them can remember seeing the original film back in the summer of '81. Like myself, they don't want to see this series go out with a whimper and as much as they would love to see the movie, they also question the basic need for it. They've also had a fourth INDIANA JONES movie in their heads for almost 20 years, so no matter what the result is it won't be good enough for most. Of course, it could be great (and it would be nice if it is), but even if it were just "pretty good" it would be a letdown for many; it has to be better than the movie they have in their minds or else it doesn't deserve to exist. And rest assured, if that's the case then the fans will make sure their voices are heard, and I think you all know where that will be.

As with most every industry or artistic medium, the internet has been revolutionary in how it's allowed the audience to interact with filmmakers and studios like never before. Want to download the script to some hot new blockbuster? It's out there, and if someone isn't careful the entire film itself can be out there, too, for those who want it. Want to tell the folks how much you loved or loathed a certain flick? Start a blog or subscribe to a message board and you're off and running. The audience now has more information about a film in their grasp than ever before; reviews can show up weeks, even months, in advance, and rumors of on-set strife or battles between studios and filmmakers can hit your browser just hours after it all goes down. We've always been a movie-hungry society, but over the last decade it's become a non-stop feast that's never going to end and mine is the generation that has up and run with it. We created Ain't It Cool News, Dark Horizons, CHUD, Twitch, IGN, UGO, Bloody Disgusting and countless other news, reviews and info sites that feed our habit several times daily. I read a few of them daily and usually see the same stories posted again and again, but at least once a day one of them actually breaks an interesting story, like when Devin Faraci at CHUD revealed that Spike Jonze's WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE might be undergoing major reshoots due to studio displeasure at the film's currently shape. It's interesting to see what's happening now - the fans are rallying around Jonze, insisting the studio let him make the film his way - and perhaps, just perhaps, if the reaction gets louder and louder, maybe, just maybe, they might have an impact. It was a similar negative fan reaction that no doubt led the now-former New Line CEO Bob Shayne (an asshole he might often be, but I always admired the guy and am sad to see him go) to make peace (and payments) with Peter Jackson regarding THE HOBBIT because otherwise who'd see the movie? Every so often the fans do have their power and it's the internet that's their weapon of choice, but you know something? That's an extremely rare thing.

I remember when I first saw Harry Knowles' Ain't It Cool News in the fall of '96 and saw the first batch of scoops - test screening reviews and rumors (some accurate, some not) about the upcoming STAR WARS prequels - it seemed too good to be true, and it was. It felt like it was a revolution in filmmaking, giving the fans a voice in the moviemaking process and allowing them to take on the powers that be in order to get films made they way they should be made, without studio interference and with as much creative freedom as possible. Around the summer of '97 it seemed like Knowles and his readers were indeed having a positive effect: BATMAN & ROBIN was assaulted mercilessly by AICN readers at advance screenings and many fans stayed away, which happened again the following summer with Emmerich's GODZILLA. One test screening with a slew of AICN reviews helped turned the tide for TITANIC, which many were predicting would bomb thanks to its cost, and the rest was history for that film. There really was this idea that it was possible to change things, to get the studios to hear about what the audiences wanted, and it was kind of exciting. However, that's not what happened. Movies haven't gotten any better; there are more comic book movies and stupid action movies, many of them second rate or worse; more stupid blockbusters, less creativity and less respect for the audience. Everyone claims to hate Michael Bay, but his movies still make money. Just as many revolutions fail as they do succeed and this one seems to join the former camp. So where did it all go wrong? I think it might have been with STAR WARS: EPISODE I, to be honest; plenty of fans disliked the movie (I wasn't one of them), and yet it was a blockbuster, still one of the five highest grossing films of all time. Sure, it wouldn't be the first time that a movie that people disliked was a hit, but that fucker was huge, so huge that marked a considerable change in things. It seemed for a brief time that audiences would be rejecting crap in favor of quality, but that notion, as noble as it is, was fleeting. If you feed the audience the perception that they feel they must see a certain movie, then see it they will, and by the time everyone figures they've been duped, it's already in profit. Nobody wins except the studio. The audience is powerless.

People are quick to blame Harry Knowles and his ilk for the geek culture of today for feeding this notion and all I can say is that if it wasn't Harry it would have been someone else, so give the guy a break. I know Harry a little, along with Drew and Eric, the other top guys at AICN, and I admire the fact that they've taken the site and turned it into something special to certain people and that they're making a career out of something they love doing. A lot of people see them as corporate tools, but if you knew about some of the behind-the-scenes stuff that I've heard about then you'd know that that's not the case. Yes, Harry can get way too effusive about certain movies (or too many movies), but I believe the site is balanced enough if you look at it clearly and besides, the only critic you should listen to in the end is yourself. I feel the same about the other internet folks I know, like Devin at CHUD and Todd at Twitch, and if I could make a living out of doing this myself I would, so understand that I am not trying to place myself above anyone. Yes, they can all be a little too snarky at times (though well-placed snark has its benefits), but what people also don't understand is that these guys take what they do seriously. They all see themselves as journalist and they all love the opportunity to champion little movies and to call the studios out on their bullshit. The fact that it doesn't always make a difference, well, maybe that's just the system. Doesn't make it less sad, but perhaps it is what it is. Not that is has to be that way...

The filmmaking (and film loving) generation of Lucas and Spielberg eventually gave birth to a generation that has had most every filmmaking advantage given to it but hasn't produced real results. Some great films, yes, but mostly carbon copies of the films that our parents, George and Steven, originally made so much better 20, 25, 30 years ago. We talk and write more about great movies than we actually make them. I 'd like to think that we know what a great film really is, but with SIN CITY sitting in the IMDB Top 100 (above 2001, mind you), I'm not so sure. It's not that I think that I think people my age are stupid or lazy, but that we don't have the proper perspective; we can't do what's been done before and we have to find ways of trailblazing that are more than just putting comic book panels on the big screen. There have been opportunities to do things new and original, or even to just offer some solid entertainment, and in the words of one trailblazing classic, we blew it. But like I said before, it doesn't have to be that way. Things can change, as they always do. We can change them, but we have to change ourselves first. Like Spielberg, we can wise up, grow up, throw away our childhood things and discover something new about the world and about ourselves and bring that experience with us when we tell our stories. Like Lucas, we can stick to our guns and remain independent. We can learn the lessons of these "parents" and not blame them or ourselves when we don't measure up, but just pick ourselves up and try again. We had some damn happy childhood memories thanks to these two, but we're all adults now. Dosen't mean we have to forget our childhoods, but we can no longer afford to revel in them. Let's act accordingly and clean up this mess.

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