Whatcha, Whatcha, Whatcha Want?
My wife and I were in the mood for a film this weekend. We used to go to the theater regularly but have weaned ourselves down to: almost never. I’m not sure if it’s the chatty patrons, the cost, or the nice TV we have at home now or what. We just don’t go. This weekend, however, we were in the mood for popcorn at a nickel a kernel, and she pulled up a list of what was showing.
Of course! How could I forget that John Carter is playing? The Edgar Rice Burroughs stories are currently at the top of the SF lists on Amazon (I glance now and then). I’d seen some of the previews, and it looked like a good popcorn-muncher. (I can suspend disbelief long enough to watch a dude bounce a hundred feet into the air and sling boulders the size of minivans but still be unable to break the chain loose that holds him to said rock).
Two seconds after getting my hopes up, however, and smelling the butter in the air, my wife pointed out the poor reviews. 51% on rottentomatoes.com. Probably not worth our $30.
Having not seen the film (I will when it comes out on video), I’m left guessing at how such a huge investment in an established franchise can fall flat. Producers know what you want, right? They know the tropes you like, the characters you’ll root for, I mean . . . this is what they do for a living. How can they get it wrong? And so spectacularly?
Burroughs provided the stories on a platter. They’ve been tested and they have proved themselves on the market. The budget for the film was $250 million dollars. The talent was proven (a Pixar writer was at the helm). And yet, some are saying the projected losses could be in the neighborhood of $200 million, making it one of the biggest flops in Hollywood history.
Which brings us to Wool. Why would any studio green-light an unknown work of science fiction when mega-hits like John Carter can’t win? They probably won’t, but let me tell you why they should (as if any of you need convincing).
The problem with film studios right now (and big publishers and SELF publishers) is this: We have no idea what you want. That’s right. We’re constantly guessing and almost always wrong. And I think I know why.
My personal theory is that there are only a handful of stories to be told; the rest is variation. These most primal stories, the tropes, appeal to a genetic commonality amongst us, a sense of right and wrong, of good vs. evil, of underdog vs. long odds, stories of love, tragedy, change, and accomplishment. This is why plots that are thousands of years old, told in foreign languages to people of supposedly vastly different cultures, continue to resonate with us today. THE ILIAD still makes sense, still moves us emotionally, which is strange when you think about it. It’s why I don’t buy that we are products of our cultures; our cultures must be products of us. I’m not convinced that we’ve changed all that much in the last few thousand years.
The problem, then, is one of oversaturation. It’s what killed WHO WANTS TO BE A MILLIONAIRE and SURVIVOR. As much as we love tropes, we want something new; we just don’t know what that is until we see it. If JOHN CARTER is too much like AVATAR, we’re going to be bored enough to note the plot holes and weak characters. The CGI isn’t going to distract us. That worked for TITANIC, and it’ll never work again.
WOOL’s viral success highlights the ignorance we as producers have for what you want as an audience. I never mentioned nor promoted WOOL until after it had already taken off. I tossed it out there and it did its own thing for months. Not because I didn’t like it, but because I assumed no one else would. It was too non-traditional. Now, there are tropes hidden within the plot (and it becomes more and more traditional as the series continues), but that first short story should never have gone out in the shape it took, not if there were any gatekeepers to warn me and tweak it first. WOOL ignores too many rules. Which ended up being a good thing.
Movie studios need to embrace this truth: Almost everything has been tried, so let’s give new a chance. Have you seen MOON? One of the best sci-fi flicks I’ve seen in ages. Haunting and poignant. I don’t think it hit a single theater near me, and I’m still too caught up in the rational to believe it could have been a monster hit even if it had been given the right push. Still, I suspect it would have done better than JOHN CARTER. I suspect WOOL would do very well if given an honest account on the big screen, and not because I think my shit’s all that great, I honestly don’t. I never gave WOOL a chance until readers told me through sales and reviews that they liked it. Which is why I think we should be listening to you rather than chasing those handful of tired tales paddling around in our collective gene pools. Sure, we may intuitively sense that these are the stories you want, but you’ve already heard them. I suspect you’re looking for something different. I just wish (along with every ad expert in the country) that I knew what the hell that was.