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Why Do Movies Keep Flopping?

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Hollywood releases a film that’s supposed to be a huge blockbuster. Opening weekend comes and goes, and, to put things kindly, the movie fails to meet financial expectations. Audience reception is lukewarm at best. It limps through its theatrical run, barely making back its production budget—which, if you’ve got even a cursory knowledge of motion picture economics, you know means it actually lost a shitload of money when factoring in marketing, theater cuts and other sunken costs, reshoots, etc.

What’s that? You have heard this before? As in, almost every time a new movie came out the past year or so? Ah, gotcha. But stick with me a minute.

Now that the film is a veritable flop, Hollywood does what any smart and responsible business does: take a step back, look hard and objectively at their product, listen critically to audience feedback, and ask what changes should be made to win back their customers. Publicly acknowledge that they didn’t quite get it right, but that they value their audience, hear their concerns and criticisms and take them to heart, and vow to do better next time.

No one stopped me that time. Gee, I wonder why.

Let’s give the folks in Tinseltown credit: by dropping more bombs over the past year than the U.S. Eighth Air Force did in World War II, they’ve made losing obscene sums of money into an art form. Disney alone was forced to report losses in the neighborhood of one billion dollars just this year—and that’s before factoring in some of their most recent disasters. That kind of sustainability in failure takes a special kind of talent; I don’t know what kind of talent, but hey, if I could make a career out of consistently crapping my pants, I think I’d be feeling pretty smug too.

So, of course there’ll be no humility, no self-reflection, no critical reassessments of what went wrong. No, they have their answers: it’s all the fans’ fault. They’re racist! They’re sexist! They’re stupid backwater hicks who copulate with immediate family members and barnyard animals! They’re just not cultured and enlightened enough to appreciate the profound genius of these titans of the arts. They just need to be better.

It’s like a broken record at this point. Like a bunch of spoiled toddlers throwing their toys out of the proverbial crib, they point the finger everywhere but at themselves. They refuse to even entertain the notion of their own fallibility. How dare we miserable pissants neglect our humanitarian obligation to leave the comfort of our homes and set aside our precious time and hard-earned money to see their movies? How dare we refuse to adjust our opinions and expectations to coddle their fragile egos?

And they wonder why even fewer people come out to see the next movie. Actually, scratch that; they don’t wonder, they just dig deeper into their bag of ninety-nine-cent aspersions to try to deflect criticism of their criminally overpriced product.

Now, full disclosure, I don’t really care if Hollywood sinks or swims. The last blockbuster movie I saw was Top Gun: Maverick, and I’m in no hurry to see any more. I’m neither gloating over Hollywood’s recent failures nor lamenting them; Hollywood is dead to me. I’m not writing for their sakes—even if they could hear such a pitiful voice as mine over the boisterous notes of their own praise machine. I’m writing this because there are lessons for my fellow writers, be they screenwriters, novelists like myself, playwrights, comic creators, or storytellers in any medium, who don’t have a bunch of billionaire investors to cushion our falls if we make the same arrogant mistakes.

I don’t think there’s just one factor behind all these movies doing their best James Harden impression. A lot of it is just practical; who wants to take time out of their schedule to go to the theater when they can wait a couple months for a movie to hit streaming, where they can watch whenever they feel like it, not have to leave the couch, be able to pause it to get up and take a dump without missing anything, etc.? Sure, we’ve seen some films blow the doors off the box office lately, but let’s be perfectly clear: those are the outliers. Add inflation to the mix, and consumers suddenly become more discerning with their dwindling supply of disposable income. Will they still go to theaters? Sure, but they’re more likely to go for something fresh, not something they’ve been seeing regularly for the last fifteen years with a slightly different coat of paint. Audiences probably still want those movies; they just don’t value them enough to go out of their way to watch them.

But diminishing returns on the theater experience can only go so far in explaining why films that would’ve been surefire box office gold just a year or two ago have turned into colonoscopy prep for studios’ bank accounts. Ditto for formulaic films, political polarization, oversaturation of certain genres, and all the other reasons commonly given. Those certainly aren’t helping, but they’re not the primary cause.

No, my friends, I believe the real reason is quite simple; one that’s been going on for a while now, but audiences are finally coming around to realizing and rejecting:

Hollywood has stopped telling us stories.

Instead, they’ve given us content.

Content. My God, is there a more banal word in the English language than content? Might as well just call it “stuff.”

I have long believed that a good story should be like a wholesome meal: it should satisfy our innate hunger for great art while providing our souls with lasting nourishment. It should leave us feeling fulfilled, even reinvigorated; it should be a healthy experience whose memory stays with us, and if we go back for seconds, it’s because of the richness of it, a richness that we want to experience again, not because we’re left unsatiated or left with cravings.

Hollywood would rather churn out processed cinematic junk food intended to agitate our entertainment addiction, to give us fifteen-second dopamine rushes at just the right intervals as to keep us from zoning out and checking our phones. They’re not interested in telling satisfying tales that stir in our hearts and stick with us long after we’ve left the theater; they want us to stay hungry, stay craving, so that we’ll dutifully jump at the next computer-generated treat they dangle before us. I like to call it Snickers-bar entertainment; sure, a Snickers bar tastes good—although not nearly as good as a Milky Way, and that’s a fact—but all it really does is make you fat.

An article came across my news feed a while back, the title asking why the works of J.R.R. Tolkien—a “terrible writer” in the author’s opinion—remain so popular when more literarily astute stories are forgotten within a week. Well, I didn’t actually read the article on account of the inflammatory clickbait title, so I’ve no idea what conclusions the author arrived at, but for my money, there’s your answer. Tolkien’s stories are a veritable banquet for the heart, the mind, the soul, and the conscience. Because, like so many of the stories that endure throughout the ages, the main ingredient in that meal is love—not merely the love between characters on the page, in all its myriad manifestations, not the love that drives out evil, but the love of story itself. That love leaps off the page, flutters in the air before the reader, and they drink it in, and it settles deep in their heart. It’s infectious.

How dreadfully few Hollywood movies are written with love—if they’re written at all. I read an article where someone boasted that he wrote his script in something like ten days. I’ve spent more time on a single chapter, or even a single scene within a chapter. I’ve seen other movie folks talking about how their film didn’t even have much of a script, that they just improvised the whole thing. Seriously? They have such disregard for the craft of storytelling that they’re bragging about how little effort they put into it? How the hell do they expect the audience to react, if they themselves are just going to bullshit their way through the creative process? If you’ve ever needed proof that Hollywood thinks you’re stupid, beyond them blatantly saying as much, well, there ya go.

Then, you have actors and directors saying, in no uncertain terms, that they hate their characters. They air their laundry list of grievances with the source material—whose enduring appeal is the thing that gets these remakes and spinoffs and sequels and whatnot greenlit in the first place. I mean, come on, people, use a little basic logic here. If you are actively telling people that you hate your movie, that the characters suck, then how the hell is the audience supposed to feel any differently?

Let me ask this in the simplest way humanly possible: how can anyone love your story if you don’t love it yourself? Why should they even try?

Worst of all, Hollywood seems to want to mock and punish us for the stories we do love. They have spent the past several years trying to deconstruct our old heroes, turning them into mewling mush to be emasculated and humiliated at every turn or revealing them to have been awful people all along, as if to vilify us for ever having embraced them. Never mind that we’ve gone on yearslong journeys with these characters. We’ve celebrated their triumphs and mourned their tragedies. We’ve suffered with them through their long winter of the spirit, for it is amid that winter, when we’re forced together to keep each other warm, that we form our most lasting bonds with a character; we reveal their vulnerability, their weakness, their humanity. We see a bit of ourselves in them. We’ve chosen to love them. Instead, we have replacement characters foisted upon us, usually a brash young female character with neither heroic qualities to admire nor a journey to go on with them; characters who demand that the world changes to suit them rather than being molded by life’s experience; characters who, like their creators, blame everyone else for their failures rather than learning from their mistakes. We’re given no opportunity to grow with these characters because they already have everything they need. There’s no winter to suffer through with them because they’re too perfect to fail. All we have is a superficial shell, hollow but for an endless supply of snarky one-liners that just happen to translate well into Mandarin.

And when we voice our displeasure at this desecration of our heroes, the values they stand for, the passion we’ve shared with them, and the legacies that sired them; when we fail to embrace the new characters because, even if the people behind them weren’t talking down to us through them all the time, we’re simply not given an opportunity to build a relationship with them and develop genuine human feelings for them—least of all the love demanded from us by their creators—we’re labeled “toxic fans.”

I used to think Hollywood was simply out of touch, that they didn’t understand their audience, or people in general really: what different groups of people like, why they connect so deeply with certain characters and stories, how those relationships form and evolve, etc. Now I realize that it’s not a lack of understanding of people, but a manifestation of utter disdain for them.

There has never been a more opportune moment for independent artists in all media to assert themselves than the moment we find ourselves in right now. As Hollywood flounders, indies are flourishing—perhaps not enough to challenge Hollywood’s entertainment hegemony, but enough to open the door to at least some degree of competition, some genuine choice for audiences, in a space hitherto dominated by a ruthless, ideologically monolithic, creatively bankrupt entity. An opportunity for stories written from a place of love to take away but a little of the market share from those produced out of spite, greed, cynicism, nihilism, and sometimes even outright misanthropy.

Hollywood has shown no signs of adapting to the growing cracks in its façade; hell, I’m not even sure they could even if they were to have an epiphany, gulp down a slice of gluten-free organic free-range humble pie, and realize that the sky is, in fact, falling. They’ve spent so long resting on their laurels that they have no idea how to react to the evolving entertainment landscape. And make no mistake, it is evolving. From what I’ve learned listening to people who study trends in entertainment, younger audiences in particular are just as likely to get their content fixes from things like video games, social media, YouTube, etc.—content far more conducive to their plummeting attention spans. Now, this isn’t to say that TikTok is going to be the death of Hollywood, but if I’m Bob Iger right now, and I’m seeing data suggesting that my movie that needs to make back the GDP of St. Kitts and Nevis just to turn a modest profit (or twice that, if it’s one of the Avatar movies) is competing for eyeballs with some fifteen-year-olds swallowing laundry detergent, well, suffice it to say, I’m not terribly optimistic.

(This would probably be a good time to note that the West’s addiction to short-form, instant-gratification content—TikTok, Instagram, and the like—is causing measurable neurological damage, frying those dopamine receptors from overstimulation. That’s your audience in ten years, Hollywood; might want to start thinking about making the movie equivalent of Reels.)

This is indeed independent storytellers’ time to shine, but we’d do well to look critically at why the mainstream is in such a pickle, and not get caught up in the propaganda. We can’t afford to make the same mistakes. There’s no Larry Fink out there to bail us out when we flush a billion bucks down the toilet. We’re at the mercy of our audience; we need to understand who they are—and just as importantly, who they’re not—and what they expect out of stories. This doesn’t mean restricting our own creative freedom; on the contrary, what I think audiences want is authenticity. They want thoughtful, impactful, emotionally intelligent storytelling that comes from the heart. Imbue your story with the same love as luminaries like Tolkien and George Lucas, and your audience will feel that. They’ll embrace it. Sure, your story probably won’t be the next The Lord of the Rings, but it doesn’t have to be. If a few people love it so much that they’re willing to write fan fiction stories or power metal songs about it, or even if they’re still reminiscing on the experience weeks after turning the last page, you’ve succeeded. You’ve done what a good storyteller does: you’ve told a story that mattered to someone.

And no, not everyone will love your stuff. Some will hate it. That’s what human beings do: they have opinions on things. But we’re not Hollywood; we can’t try to dictate our audience’s tastes to them or lecture them on what they should be consuming and what they deserve. We don’t have the option of antagonizing our audience—not that we should want to in the first place; let’s be the better people here. You can either take constructive criticism to heart and make changes to your craft, or you can deduce that some folks just aren’t your audience and never will be no how matter how ardently you court them, vector your marketing and promotion efforts elsewhere, and maybe reset your expectations. But I wouldn’t recommend lashing out at them, slandering and dehumanizing them. Hollywood people can afford to come across as a bunch of insecure buffoons; you cannot. Antics like that will only get you a bunch of middle fingers and a severe drop in reputation capital. Be as grateful to those who aren’t your fans as you are to those who are, because you can learn from them.

Be grateful, always. Be as great in your gratitude to your fans as Hollywood is in scorn for theirs. It turns out audiences appreciate humility, kindness, and respect, at least far more than they do being treated like rancid dog crap. Who would’ve guessed?

What’s more, gratitude is an expression of love—that very most essential ingredient for being both a good storyteller and a good person, and the one that’s so conspicuously absent from the soulless content plaguing our movie theater screens.

Cover and top-of-page images created using Bing AI.

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