Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Accepted Wisdom

Story director Mark Kennedy explains why the consensus views of "experts" is often wrong.

... I worked for many years on the film "Rapunzel" which eventually became "Tangled", and during all that time I had many discussions with people that thought Disney was crazy to make another fairy tale. Many people thought that the success of "Shrek" had proven that audiences were too sophisticated and too steeped in irony to really appreciate a sincere fairy tale anymore. People thought that in the post-Shrek world, there was no room for an old-school Disney fairy tale with princes and princesses that sing.

These days, it may be hard to remember that people once felt that way, after the success of "Tangled" and the monster runaway success of "Frozen". But I had many conversations with people who would ask why were doing such and obviously dumb thing in making an animated fairy tale. A Disney princess musical hadn't been successful in years, and some people at Disney thought we were going to be embarrassed when it came out because we would look stale and uninspired compared to the offerings of Pixar, DreamWorks and Blue Sky, who were--at that time--dominating the animated market with everything other than princess fairy tale musicals.

For whatever reason, after "Princess and the Frog" came out, people seemed to take an even dimmer view of what we were doing. It sometimes felt like the studio would have cancelled "Tangled" if they could. Luckily for us, it was too late at that point, and it seemed like the studio was resigned to release it and get on with making other kinds of movies. On the web and in print media, all I ever read about "Tangled" is that it was an ill-conceived idea and was destined to be an embarrassing flop.

Then we had our first preview screenings, and the audiences really liked it. Things started changing after that, and the film starting building good momentum and good buzz. After it came out and did well, it seemed like nobody in the press or on the internet was that surprised…that it made sense, somehow, that Disney would make a CG fairy tale musical and of course make it feel both modern and traditional.

So to me, "Tangled" felt like a bit of a black swan. Yes, Disney is known for making animated fairy tales, so it wasn't a huge new risk in that way … but it was risky because accepted wisdom at that point was that audiences wanted something different and fresh. That the days of animated musical fairy tales was over.

Until it wasn't. ...

Hollywood's smart money doesn't have any lock on what properties will click with the movie-going public, and what properties will go south. And it's pretty much always been this way. Like for instance:

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was considered a disaster in the making, especially by people who hadn't seen the story reels.

Civil War movies were considered box office poison. Then Gone With the Wind got released.

Westerns never make their production costs back. (Okay, there was Blazing Saddles and Dances with Wolves, but what about A Million Ways to Die in the West?)

Star Wars got turned down by various studios because each one knew that nobody ever went to space movies. But Fox finally took a flier on it, and now George Lucas is a billionaire.

The Sixth Sense was in production when Disney decided it had a turkey on its hands and sold off most of its ownership in the film. Then, of course, it turned into a smash hit.

Frozen languished in the development deep freeze until Tangled was a hit. Then they thawed the Hans Christian Anderson project out. This time, the Mouse had the good sense not to sell its equity position in its property.

Nobody is an unalloyed genius when it comes to the making and selling of movies. Even under the best of circumstances, clunkers get made and box office bombs result. And geniuses are particularly few and far between when it comes to predicting which movies are going to hit big.


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