Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Folly of Conventional Wisdom

The one thing you can count in the entertainment biz is for movie execs to Play It Safe. Doing things outside the box is great as a concept, but actually implementing that strategy can get you fired. Following Conventional Wisdom might be boring, but it's a less risky road to take if you don't want to start collecting unemployment checks.

So it's always gratifying when the keepers of Conventional Wisdom admit they were in error:

Pali Research media analyst Richard Greenfield has admitted that he was "dead wrong" in his assessment of Disney/Pixar's Up, which he predicted would fail to become a big hit for the studio. In particular Greenfield had claimed that the film's hero, a cranky 78-year-old voiced by Ed Asner, was not the sort of character that would attract Disney's core audience ...

See, the big trouble with Conventional Wisdom is it always looks backward:

1937 -- "Nobody will sit still for a ninety minute cartoon! Only short ones work! Everybody's eyes will get tired!" ...

1939: -- "Civil War pictures don't make a dime!" ...

1997 -- "$200 million dollars to make a movie about an ocean liner sinking?! Everybody already knows how it turns out! We're going to lose our ass!" ...

Etcetera, Excederin.

The point is, the movie business is like William Goldman says it is: "Nobody knows anything." In particular, nobody knows what will ultimately work (i.e. make money), therefore it's useful to opt for quality (i.e. good story telling) rather than the obvious but often wrong Conventional Wisdom.

21 comments:

Anonymous said...

But... but... Up is awful, way overrated, so pedestrian, too much animal violence, nobody likes it, its 3D is worse than MvA and its animation is worse than IA3 and its story is worse than Coraline and it's never a work of art like Sita.

Anonymous said...

Conventional wisdom, addendum:

1952 - "Bullfights aren't funny. We're not making any bullfighting cartoons." -Eddie Selzer to Chuck Jones

Anonymous said...

Anon #1:

I know you're being sarcastic, but something occurred to me just now. I actually agree that Up is overrated (97% on rotten tomatoes, which is the same as The Incredibles, a far superior film), but when I honestly thought about what a more appropriate score would be, I thought 90% was more accurate. Which THEN made me think...damn, even an overrated Pixar film still (in my opinion) falls in the 90-percentile somewhere.

Damn.

Anonymous said...

I think most financial 'analysts' have been thoroughly discredited by now. They are nothing more than modern day alchemists.

Neal said...

I was just listening to a Spline Cast interview with Ed Catmull, and he describes his approach to creativity and risk taking; essentially, he explains how a core element of Pixar's approach is not to avoid taking risks, but to respond to unexpected problems well- risk taking is essential to a healthy creative process. I definitely recommend looking up the interview...

My 2 Cents said...

The "conventional wisdom" infested establishment predicting box office failure is only half the story. Their greater effect is on what we never see: The movies that never get made, the projects that never get funded, never get off the ground because producers want to see something they recognize in the concept that they have confidence in investing in.

That's also one of the reasons for the celebrity voice actors- raising a budget or winning a green light. To a great extent, live action works that way, too.

Anonymous said...

"Up" is a VASTLY better film than the "Incredibles (a film I like a lot)." It's core statement is clearer, more definative, and subtle in ways The Incredibles never is. Also, the Incredibles, like Cars and Ratatouille, is a good 15 minutes too long, and quite repetative in it's ideas. Aside from "Toy Story," I'd say "Up" is the most mature/entertaining/thought provoking film Pixar's ever made. It resonates with audiences because they truly believe and care about the characters. While I believe and care about the Parr family, it's emotions lay on the surface from beginning to end. Carl and Russell engage the audience and we get to know them and their faults more gradually. It sucks you in so that the emotional impact is far, FAR greater than anything in The Incredibles.

Anonymous said...

"Mr. Greenfield has given Pali Capital, the relatively small parent company, an outsized media footprint.

“We try to be vocal, and we're not afraid of being provocative,” Mr. Greenfield says. “That's often how we get heard.”

-Agent Provocateur on Media Mission, June 09, Matthew Flamm

Greenfield, like all giant over-rated egos, is, above all things, concerned with Pali Capital first. Arrogance, pure and simple, and it makes him money hand over fist. He doesn't have to be right and he knows it. He just has to be heard.

He's another asshole with an opinion, except his opinion makes billions of dollars off the sweat of others. He's an 'analyst?'

More like a carpet-bagger.

Anonymous said...

heh-heh....he said "ANALyst..." heh-heh...

Anonymous said...

Up vs Incredibles:

In my opinion, Up strove for more, but didnt execute as well. I wasnt sucked in by the prologue. It felt shallow to me, I never felt any real emotion for them because the execution was campy. They couldnt take their life-long dream vacation because they got a flat tire? I feel the filmmakers could have made it higher stakes, somehow. I know they lost a child, but even that isnt detrimental enough to not take a trip you promised your wife. Now, had they taken the "What Dreams May Come" route and had her fall into a pit of depression over losing their only child, I maybe would have bought into it. But instead, they seemed to overcome their troubles in their (boring) life. Where's the regret? As it was, the crux of the film relied on that prologue WORKING, making the audience FEEL like Carl had one big regret, and for me (and others, I know) it never felt like that. And the cross-your-heart gesture didnt help alleviate the campiness...

Mix that with Carl's ninja-moves (isnt he like 80?), the plane-flying dogs, and the 140 year old villain who looked 75, there's enough flaws in my mind to make it inferior to The Incredibles. (which I cant find a single flaw with)

Anonymous said...

Well, you're in the minority, as UP is beating the pants off The Incredibles at the box office and in opinion polls. It's a very good film, though.

Anonymous said...

I loved both Up and Incredibles. They each have their own proper sensibilities, which were flawlessly executed. Pixar IS the gold standard. Three words: Walt. Would. Approve.

Anonymous said...

Okay.

But...what opinion polls? I think you just made that up.

Anonymous said...

Based on the strength of the thematic analysis here in this thread, I decided to go to the cinema to view this film "Up". Imagine my surprise to discover that it was just a cartoon!

I didn't realize these posts were all being written by children!

Anonymous said...

Yup. But then fast forward to next week when we're arguing that animation isnt just a medium for children's films.

Have your cake now, and eat it next week too!

Anonymous said...

But conventional wisdom is right: Ice Age 3 is doing huge business without any of the doubt and fear. And Kung Fu Panda 2, Toy Story 3, Shrek 4, Ice Age 4, 5, 6, 7...

Why bother making something like Up anymore, to get that much doubt and spite from the cynics?

Anonymous said...

From a post I made over at Cartoon Brew:

In all of this “the suits don’t get it!” clap-trap, I hate to go back to the well YET AGAIN, but:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WApcUBcVMos

If (a)The great majority of animation studios are churning out sub-par content (copying the THING rather than the CONDITIONS, as said above), and

(b)There are so many talented and creative animators and story types out there who recognize this, and

(c)Animation, Sound, and Editing software is (relatively) inexpensive, and

(d)Modern animators have access to the greatest independent promotion and distribution system ever created (the internet)

then why doesn’t a + b + c + d = an explosion of independently animated and distributed films?

r said...

There might be many reasons why not. Pencil and paper, and a simple camera set up are also very accessible (through public libraries, or schools, for example) before computers were so accesible, and there was not as many independent films then either.

One of the many reasons, could be that we have to work for a living, which takes up to 10 hours a day. Leaving precious little time for everything else, family life, etc.

Another reason, could be that good ideas are hard to come by, and if you happen to think of one, you don't want it taken away by some conglomerate who won't compensate you fairly. I don't know, just two reasons that ocurr to me at the moment...

r.

r said...

And, in fact, there are a lot of animated shorts on the internet.

But they seem to get lost in the vast sea of information out there...

r.

Anonymous said...

"Well, you're in the minority, as UP is beating the pants off The Incredibles at the box office and in opinion polls."

Could we please have some realistic perspective here?

Both UP and Incredibles scored 97% on RT (190 out of 195 for UP, 217 out of 224 for Incredibles). UP is as well reviewed as Incredibles.

As for the box... UP has already earned $273 mil domestic. Incredibles earned $261.4 mil domestic in 2004-2005, but ticket prices were 13% cheaper. In 2009 dollars, Incredibles earned the equivalent of $295 mil. Plus, Incredibles didn't have the added earnings potential of 3-D, which average 30% increase above 2-D prices. Adjusting for inflation and 3-D ticket increases, UP is earning at least 25% more at the box than Incredibles did for the same number of tickets sold. Focusing only on total dollars does little to paint a film's true success.

All things being equal, Incredibles would have earned at least $327 mil had it been released this year and in 3-D. Is UP going to earn $327 mil domestic this year? Possibly. If it does, then UP will have earned the equivalent of Incredibles based on 2009 2-D and 3-D ticket prices. That's hardly "beating the pants off" of Incredibles, either at the box or in reviews.

UP is a fun diversion, but as anonymous 'Up vs Incredibles' pointed out, it is terribly flawed. And those flaws interfered with my ability to suspend disbelief to a satisfactory level. Incredibles was a more cohesive, believable story, even with the superhero overlay.

Pixar has done way better than UP. TS2 is still my favorite Pixar film; I'm hoping Unkrich and Arndt can deliver next year with TS3 and "beat the pants off" UP's box.

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