Sunday, February 21, 2010

Rules for Hollywood? (2009 - Avatar & Paranormal Activity)

It recently occurred to me that 2009 may have provided the two furthest ends of the spectrum in filmmaking success in a single year...

"Avatar" and "Paranormal Activity".

When you think about these two extremes, it's hard to believe that there are really any rules in Hollywood for what it takes to have a successful film.

Okay, so this really isn't breaking news. "There are no rules in Hollywood." Fine. Thank you, Captain Obvious.

All I'm saying is that 2009 may have been the best illustration of that fact.

The budget for Paranormal Activity was somewhere in the neighborhood of $15k (yes, that's "k", as in "thousand"). The technology was primitive (at best). The director had no experience. Expectations were low (to say the least). Marketing was mainly via social networking (at least initially). The movie has grossed in the ballpark of $200 million.

Not a bad ballpark for a $15k investment.

The budget for Avatar was about $200 million. The technology was ground-breaking. The director had a lot of experience, including the previous all-time high-grossing film. Expectations were high (to say the least). Marketing was mainly "old school" (e.g., commercials and talk shows). The movie has grossed over $2 billion.

Not quite the same return on investment as Paranormal Activity, but not too shabby.

So, when I hear advice from various people in the industry saying, "You must [fill-in-the-blank]" or "You can't [fill-in-the-blank]"... I have a hard time taking any of this advice at face value. What they're saying me have been true for them at one time in their careers, and it may be true again.

Or it may not.

It's like Newton's Law of Hollywood...

"For every piece of advice, there's an equal and opposite piece of advice."

That's not to say nobody knows what they're talking about. Experience should count for something, right?


But how much (if any) does experience matter?

On the one hand, a film (or writer, director, actor, etc.) can have tons of experience, and be involved in a flop. On the other hand, a newcomer can skyrocket to the top.

I didn't intend to rhyme. That was an accident.

Like much of what happens in Hollywood.

There are some people who have great track records, producing more hits than misses... but nobody's batting 100%. Nobody has this thing totally figured out. The big studios produce some garbage, and the indie world creates some masterpieces.

Speaking of indies...

I've read some articles about death of indie filmmaking. They go on and on about the details of how the funding sources and distribution channels have dried up in recent years, and therefore it has become harder for indie filmmakers to survive. While I can't argue these facts (not being an indie filmmaker myself, I don't know enough to say if it's true or not), I have a hard time buying it as an overarching generality.

Or, put another way...

Did you hear the one about "Paranormal Activity"?

Distribution channels and funding sources may be changing, but come on... who really understood those things in the first place? And I'm not just saying this out of my own personal ignorance. There's a story about some college professors who traveled West in an attempt to map out the economics of Hollywood...

And traveled back East even more bewildered than when they'd arrived.

There may... I repeat, MAY... be some rules to follow in order to be successful in "THE INDUSTRY". But the more I think about it, the more I'm convinced that it's just a lot of free-wheeling poker playing.

To me, that's encouraging.

If nobody REALLY knows what's going on, then people down here at my level know about as much as everybody else.