Vanity Fair‘s John Lopez has something very important to say about the state of contemporary movies and their audiences. Whether or not you’re a Scott Pilgrim fan, it is a brilliant take on what you can do to keep films fresh, fun and truly original:
Let me get straight to the point: Go and pay to see Scott Pilgrim right now. Why, you ask? Well, check out last weekend’s box-office totals. See Scott Pilgrim? Keep looking—it’s down there at No. 10. It made only $5 million dollars in its second weekend of release, a 53 percent drop from the first weekend, with a total domestic gross of $20 million. That’s not good. (Trust me when I say “not good”: Universal not only spent a lot making this, it spent a lot marketing it. They had to market the hell out of it because it was something you probably hadn’t heard about before—you know, the way movies used to be.)
The film’s dismal performance is pretty disheartening for anyone who’s a fan of the new, as opposed to the stale, trite, and cliche, because whatever Scott Pilgrim is, it is definitely not stale, trite, or cliche. It doesn’t redo old ideas, revisit threadbare conceits, or remake twice-told stories in a tired way. In fact, it’s good. Or, if you’re searching for movie-critic adjectives, you could call it “different,” “fresh,” and “innovative,” if not “cool,” “fun,” “heart-warming,” “intelligent,” and/or “awesome.” (Have fun with those, blurb-makers!) Listen, if A.O. “Nashville’s-the-Greatest-Movie-Ever” Scott can recommend a film aimed at video-game-junkie twentysomethings, whose themes and characters are as important to him as a Surgeon General’s Warnings is to Don Draper, there’s probably something there. And if you haven’t noticed, it’s been an atrocious year for movies. That’s not just our opinion: it’s so bad even studio executives are ringing up agents with frantic “Oh my God, what have we done” conference calls to ask, “Oh my God, what have we done?”
So, if the movies have been so bad—if, as we complain, there’s nothing good playing—why is a good movie having such a hard time finding an audience? Scapegoats include Michael Cera’s ability to “open” a movie (though pretty much every actor gets that stigma these days); the inability of audiences to understand what the movie is (so we see only movies that can be easily summarized in canned tag lines? Like what, for example? Inception?); and, of course, comics and fan boys. (Right, because those people definitely don’t pay to go see movies.) Maybe Scott Pilgrim’s target audience—the Facebook generation—is downloading it instead of paying for a movie ticket. It’s hard to say if that’s true, but if it is: please, even if you’ve already illegally downloaded Scott Pilgrim, posted it on your Wall, and exported it to your iPhone 4, I assure you it’s much better on the big screen—almost as if that was the way director Edgar Wright intended it to be seen. And guess what, it wasn’t hastily converted to 3D either, so you don’t have to pay an extra $5 to wear funny glasses, watch an underlit screen, and get a migraine. So, put down the iPad (especially if you’re driving), turn left at the multiplex, and go buy a ticket. Tonight. Come on, it’s a Tuesday in mid-August, where else do you have to be? Plus, if you live in the lower 48, I can guarantee it’s a lot cooler in that theater.
What’s with the pushiness, you ask? Why is this so important? Well, one could argue, if you’ve ever complained at all about the woeful state of cinematic storytelling—how you get more engaging narratives in email forwards than you do at the movies these days—a healthy aversion to hypocrisy pretty much compels you to get your butt in that seat. See, as much as we like to complain about cynical studios and throwaway films, the fact is they make money—or just enough money to justify the bad habits. And if you must know, that’s what studios are trying to do (make money). Further, they don’t make junk out of some callous desire to inflict bland pain on our eyeballs. If anything, they inflict bland pain on our eyeballs out of fear: fear that they’ll take a tentative, baby-step stab at something different, something that presents semi-realistic issues, imperfect characters, and complex resolutions in a novel way—and no one will come. And they’ll lose money. And all the nay-sayers will take the box-office numbers as the final word on a movie’s worth. Worse, the studios won’t make those movies because when you’ve bet $100 million on “something new” and come up short, it doesn’t matter if in your heart of hearts you can tell yourself you made a good movie: you’re not going to bet your next $100 million the same way. If you still have a $100 million to bet. Or a job.
But I saw Toy Story 3 and Inception, you say. I’m doing my part as homo economicus, driving the market to provide the product I want. Good for you, but at this point, Chris Nolan and Pixar are going to be O.K. They are what you might call a “known quantity,” and Hollywood loves those, because they make for safer bets. But Scott Pilgrim was a risk, a gamble, a leap of faith. The sad-but-true fact is that studios and their corporate parents just don’t know how to do that, and when they do, you need to smack them upside the head with box-office success for them to understand the lesson. There was a different time, a desperate time: when the world was in crisis, the old studio system had collapsed, television was offering great storytelling, and gas was $3 a gallon. The studios had nothing to lose then, so they threw everything against the wall, took risks on new talent and crazy ideas, and we got films like Bonnie and Clyde, Chinatown, Apocalypse Now, Alien, Rocky, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, A Clockwork Orange, Star Wars, Jaws, Taxi Driver, Grease, Annie Hall, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and, oh yeah, The Godfather.
So, it can happen. But only if we, the not-so-faithful moviegoers, make it happen. Because studios, executives, actors, producers, writers, directors, agents, would love nothing more than to make the movies we actually want to see—that is, if we go see them. However, we have to demand better films with our wallets and our eyeballs. If we, as the audience, complain that studios don’t love us enough to give us something really worth our time, then we need to have the self-respect necessary to slay the sell-out stooges who tell us we can’t ask for anything better than Vampires Suck. (If you’d seen Scott Pilgrim, you’d get that reference.)
But really, the best reason to go see Scott Pilgrim is because it’s a good movie. It takes a stab at saying something honest in a new way, and has a lot of fun doing it. If you like that kind of thing, and would like to see more of it, please go and pay to see Scott Pilgrim right now. And if you don’t like it, I’ll forward you a really funny YouTube video about double rainbows. You can ROTFL. I’ll be at the theater.