Entertainment Magazine

Big Budget Bland

Posted on the 09 November 2011 by Conroy @conroyandtheman
by Conroy

Big Budget Bland

The epitome of the mega-budget movie

We live in the era of the mega-budget movie. Those films that costhundreds of millions of dollars to make and tens of millions more to market. Bymy count, in the last seven years there have been eighteen movies with a productionbudget of at least $200 million (see table below). These movies share onecharacteristic – they’re dominated by digital effects.
Back in 1998 David Foster Wallace skewered Hollywood forenthusiastically embracing what he termed the “F/X Porn” genre: Mega-budget moviesthat feature massive doses of highly effective, sensuous special effects, butvery little character or plot. Prominent examples from the 1990s include Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Jurassic Park [1], and Twister. He likened these movies to pornography – instead of porn’sprurient carnality, there are a few elaborate, terrifically convincing effectssequences separated by long segments of vapid, formulaic storytelling.
Wallace cited the Inverse Costand Quality Law, which may sound like a concept plucked from amicroeconomics textbook, but was actually his invention. Stated simply, the“ICQL” says, “the larger a movie’s budget is, the shittier that movie is goingto be.” For a movie snob like me, this idea seems so obvious that I’m embarrassedI didn’t articulate something similar. When Wallace developed the ICQL, ithadn’t been that long since “T2” and Jurassic Park revolutionized the scopeand role of special effects. They were no longer a feature of many big budget movies;effects became their very reason for being. The ICQL posits that mega-budgeteffects movies needs a bankable star, a simple plot relying on proven formulasand easy sentiment, and lots of distracting digital effects. In addition,corollaries to the ICQL state that (a) the more lavish the effects the worsethe non-effects parts of the movie will be, and (b) the necessities of a mega-budget-effectsmovie will subsume the creativity and originality in even the most talenteddirector [2].

Big Budget Bland

Maybe the first "F/X Porn" movie

The upshot of the ICQL is that mega-budget movies are stripped of whatattracts people to storytelling in the first place, namely characters and plot.These elements have been the foundation of storytelling since the oraltradition of our distant ancestors. I love movies because, to paraphrase MartinScorsese, they are our dreams brought to life. Movies offer a differentexperience (and better in many ways) than novels or plays or poems, or any ofthe other media we have to express our innate drive to tell stories – tocommunicate our human experience. Movies bring together sight and sound andhumanity in ways unmatchable by other forms. That's what's so disappointing about mega-budget-effects movies, as the ICQL says, these movies abandon the core tenets of good storytelling and focus on distractingour minds by overwhelming our senses.
Two rhetorical questions: How many lines of dialog can you rememberfrom your favorite movie? What do those words, coming from those characters,mean to you? Two follow-up rhetorical questions: How many of the dazzlingspecial effects sequences can you describe, in detail, from one of the recentmega-budget-effects movies? What do those effects sequence mean to you?
Testing the ICQL
So is the ICQL true? It’s easy to make snap judgments about mega-budget-effectsmovies, but are they really nothing but “F/X Porn?”
Now, technically, a “law” in the sense of describing a physical reality– or in this case a reality of Hollywood (certainly not the same thing, but following the intent of what Wallacewas after) – should be universal and invariable. Like, for example, Gravity orthe Conservation of Energy. Are mega-budget-effects movies as guaranteed to beterrible as the apple is certain to fall from the tree? Fortunately, we cantest the idea, or what I’ll temporarily rename the Inverse Cost and Quality Hypothesis (ICQH).
It’s been more than a decade since Wallace’s article and I doubt evenhe could have perceived just how common mega-budget movies would become. Evenaccounting for inflation, 25 of the 30 most expensive movies have been madesince 2000, and if we go back to 1995 that number rises to 28 of the top 30. Let’slist these 28 movies, their costs (with and without inflation), generalcritical opinion, and box office performance:

Film Year Cost ($M) Metacritic Rating Rotten Tomatoes Rating Box Office ($M)

Initial w/ Inflation

Avatar 2009 $460 $470 83 83% $2,782

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End 2007 $300 $320 50 45% $963

Titanic 1997 $220 $275 74 83% $1,843

Spider-Man 3 2007 $258 $275 59 63% $891

Tangled 2010 $260 $260 71 89% $591

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince 2009 $250 $255 78 83% $934

Waterworld 1995 $172 $250 56 43% $264

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest 2006 $225 $245 53 54% $1,066

King Kong 2005 $207 $235 81 84% $551

Spider-Man 2 2004 $200 $235 83 93% $784

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian 2008 $225 $230 62 68% $430

X-Men: The Last Stand 2006 $210 $230 58 57% $459

Superman Returns 2006 $209 $230 72 76% $391

Wild Wild West 1999 $170 $225 38 21% $222

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen 2009 $200 $205 35 20% $836

2012 2009 $200 $205 49 39% $770

Terminator Salvation 2009 $200 $205 52 33% $371

Quantum of Solace 2008 $200 $205 58 64% $586

Troy 2004 $175 $200 56 55% $497

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines 2003 $170 $200 66 71% $433

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion… 2005 $180 $200 75 76% $745

Toy Story 3 2010 $200 $200 92 99% $1,063

Green Lantern 2011 $200 $200 39 27% $220

Cars 2 2011 $200 $200 57 38% $552

Transformers: Dark of the Moon 2011 $195 $195 42 35% $1,122

The Golden Compass 2007 $180 $190 51 42% $372

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the… 2008 $185 $190 65 77% $787

The Dark Knight 2008 $185 $190 82 94% $1,022

Aggregated Total
62 61% $21,527

Source: Box Office Mojo(boxofficemojo.com), The Numbers (the-numbers.com), Metacritic(metacritic.com), Rotten Tomatoes (rottentomatoes.com).
  1. The average critical rating (using Metacriticand Rotten Tomatoes aggregated ratings) is a rather mediocre 62 and 61%, respectively,which indicates that, in general, mega-budget movies garner a lukewarm criticalreception. There’s a lot more pink (signifying a bad rating) in the above chartthan green (signifying a good rating).
  2. However, it’s certain that a substantial portionof the positive critical response to these movies (what positive response thereis) results from their technical achievement. How could it not? Every movie onthis list – every one – is first andforemost a digital effects movie. When this group is considered as a whole, theaggregate ratings for the plotlines, characterizations, themes – the non-technicalelements – must rate lower, perhaps much lower.
  3. Hollywood financing can be opaque, and publishedbudgets may significantly understate actual costs, but by any measure it seemsthat mega-budget movies are money makers [3]. Big money makers. Even if you add ten totwenty percent to the initial cost for marketing and other ancillary costs, thereturn on investment from box office receipts alone is more than 3-to-1.  Mega-budget effects movies may be mediocre,but that sells, especially in foreign markets where an ever-growing percentageof box office sales are realized. The world appetite for mega-budget Americanmovies seems unquenchable.
  4. As long as mega-budget effects movies make big profits, there’s no reason toexpect the formulas to change. Spend huge money on impressive, extravagantspecial effects. Spend little money on a script. 
  5. It doesn’t seem that mega-budget movies need abankable star. Look at the above list, Avatar,Titanic (at the time), Harry Potter, Spider-Man, and many others lack a huge name. Today, effects arethe star and a studio can be confident of financial success without a name to listabove the title.

So can we draw any conclusions about the ICQH? Well, there areexceptions (Toy Story 3 is anexcellent movie, for one) so in a strict sense it can’t be a law. Yet, there’ssome real dreck in the above list, and even more mediocrity. I’ll fairly convertthe ICQH to the ICQR – Inverse Cost andQuality Rule – with occasional exceptions. The discriminating movie fanwould be wise to consider the ICQR before heading to the theater to watch thenext mega-budget-effects movie. 
So What Does the ICQR Mean?
There are some mega-budget movies that garnered enthusiastic criticalpraise: Avatar, Titanic, Toy Story 3, Spider-Man 2, and The Dark Knight.
In ten or twenty years I’ll be willing to bet that few of these filmswill be watched with frequency. Perhaps they’ll be remembered for technicalinnovation (the way “T2” and Jurassic Park are remembered now), butas I noted above, it’s story and character that really matter, and that’s whatkeeps a movie (or novel, or play) alive and keeps people watching [4].  Technical flourish is great when it serves astory (e.g., Aliens, Blade Runner, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), but not when the storyserves it. Does anyone watch the big-budget disaster movies from the 1970s(e.g., The Towering Inferno, The Poseidon Adventure, Airport) now? I don’t think so. These were the mega-budget-effectsmovies of their day. In contrast, people are still captivated by The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, and Chinatown.In twenty years people will still laugh at Sideways,but will anyone sit through three hours of Avatar[5]?
[1]Spielberg’s movie lacks the intelligence and depth of Michael Crichton’sfantastic novel. For instance, the film radically oversimplifies the sciencebehind cloning, the ideas of Chaos Theory, and the broader complex argumentsabout the ethics behind evermore complex technology. Further, the movie’scharacters are annoying (the children), boring (the paleontologist Grant),unrealistic (the billionaire Hammond), and clichéd (the lawyer Gennaro). Theonly bright spots are the performances of Jeff Goldblum as skeptical mathematicianIan Malcolm and Wayne Knight as the sharp-tongued duplicitous computer programmerDennis Nedry. The dinosaurs look amazing, however.
[2]For example: James Cameron with Titanicand Avatar, Steven Spielberg with Jurassic Park and Indiana Jones and the Kingdomof the Crystal Skull, and George Lucas with all three of the wretched Star Wars prequels.
[3]Even “failures” like the much maligned Waterworld,The Green Lantern, Terminator Salvation, and Superman Returns seem to have at leastbroken even.
[4]Examples of movies in the mega-budget era that are worth repeated viewings(since 1995): (500) Days of Summer, Apollo13, Casino, Children of Men, Contact, Election, Eternal Sunshine of theSpotless Mind, Fargo, Heat, L.A. Confidential, Lost in Translation, No Countryfor Old Men, Rob Roy, Saving Private Ryan, Se7en, Sideways, Sling Blade, and The 40-Year-Old Virgin.
[5]Perhaps the two mega-budget-effects movies that most stick in my craw are JamesCameron’s Titanic and Avatar. Both runaway hits, both praisedupon their initial release, both technically masterful. I’ll happily concedethat the recreation of the Titanic sinking was engrossing. The 3-D digitalworld of Pandora in Avatar looked asgood as any wholly-created world has ever looked (especially in the theater).Cameron deserves all credit for these achievements. But these movies representeverything I hate about mega-budget effects movies. Why?
First Titanic. The movie’scharacters and story are painfully thin; I especially despise the insipiddialogue (count how many times characters say other characters names, “Jack!”,“Rose!,” despite being within sight of one another). The only interestingaspect of the movie is the ship sinking. So ask yourself, wouldn’t a two hourdocumentary just showing the ship sinking as it was presented in the movie bemore interesting (not to mention save time)? Here’s a short list of lousycharacter/plot elements:
  • Insipid dialog (see above);
  • Overflowing melodrama – evil fiancée, theft, gun fire, love triangle,etc.;
  • Lack of perspective – on revisiting the location of the sinking, theold lady version of Rose drops a priceless jewel into the deep as some sort oftribute for the vagabond (Jack) she met for a few days 80+ years earlierinstead of using that jewel to support her FAMILY (husband, kids, grandkids)during the many decades that had passed, which of course included The GreatDepression and two World Wars. (Are we the audience supposed to ignore this?);
  • Bad acting – Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio are great actors, buteven they couldn’t improve on flat characters and pathetic dialog.

Now Avatar. Are all corporations greedy and irresponsible? Are allAmericans – especially former military men – foolish and bloodthirsty? Are allNatives enlightened, healthy, and happy? Avatar insults the viewer, openlycheering for the defeat – and deaths – of humans (seemingly American, and male,and white). This is over-simple, tired, and strange. Here’s a list of lousycharacter/plot elements:
  • Evil white men versus the noble savage (see above) – the parallels tothe story of Pocahontas or even DancingWith the Wolves are distracting;
  • One-dimensional plotting – men are greedy, men are bloodthirsty, menare unthinking, and only a few “enlightened characters” (i.e. non-white-males) actrationally. As if a multi-trillion dollar deep space investment was a playthingfor adolescents;
  • It openly cheers for the death of humans – mostly Americans (seeabove);
  • The avatars don’t look real  –they look very good for digital creations but lack the physical nuance,especially facial expression that is so important for actors, fortunately theyaren’t required by the script to have much depth.

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