Monday, January 20, 2014

Less Copycatting, More Innovating...

There's a lack of innovation going on at the movies. Not necessarily in the independent marketplace, but by major studios. 85% of what we see in multiplexes is borrowed, copied, or recycled. For the choosy movie goer you may have been lucky enough to not notice. Maybe you have noticed because you are choosy, and the wave of run-of-the-mill releases hasn't directly affected you, yet... For the rest of us who ride this general release wave of mediocrity year-in and year-out, we've noticed and quite frankly I'm starting to get upset.

This past weekend is a perfect example of the mediocrity. Multiplexes and movie theaters across the States saw four new releases opening wide on the heels of the Academy Award nominee announcements; an action thriller "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit," an animated feature "The Nut Job," a comedy "Ride Along," and a horror movie "Devil's Due." Four different titles that appeal to a wide demographic of movie goers. Part of me believes these titles are a healthy balance to Award season and all the heavy lifting audiences have endured while consuming this year's acclaimed films. People need a chance to enjoy some light-hearted fare, that does nothing more than provide 90+ minutes of escapism. Another part of me calls bullshit on that mentality. Well, part of it. Escapism is a good thing, except we need to demand quality escapism, not the regurgitated slop Hollywood keeps belching out. There's no reason to think that all four of the wide releases this past weekend could have been good to great instead of mediocre to bad.

Ride Along took the box office and I'm not surprised. Who doesn't love a good laugh with a crowded theater? Comedy like horror can have an added benefit to seeing it with a loaded room, there's something euphoric about it and it is normal to crave. Regardless of euphoria, these titles released were lacking. I can't speak to The Nut Job or Ride Along having not seen either of them, but neither have earned high praise from audiences nor critics and I am not surprised. One looks like nothing more than another talking animal cartoon and the other is a recycled odd couple comedy. As someone who loves a good mismatched comedy, I would have seen Ride Along last weekend if it not for numerous friends telling me how much they actively disliked it. Instead it becomes one of many studio titles that end up dubbed not worth seeing in theaters. A movie I will only see once it hits one of the various subscription VOD services like Amazon Instant and Netflix or worse yet, just wait till it hits HBO or Starz.

The excuse that January is a dumpster for bad movies is readily available albeit a terrible one. Should we just accept going to the movies in January sucking? I don't think so. For someone like me who loves going to the cinemas every weekend, it is hard to say just don't go. I could have easily stayed home instead of putting down my hard earned money for Devil's Due and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit this past weekend. Instead I wanted to go and see and experience for myself what had been released. Last night, walking out of Devil's Due, I tweeted it is "the kind of movie that will get some actively angry and others will simply shrug it off." I'm the angry one. The movie is an over-sized neon sign blinking in our faces how reactionary and predictable Hollywood remains.

"Devil's Due" is a tardy attempt to copycat the (now waning) popularity of the Paranormal Activity franchise. This movie feels like it was put together on a napkin over drinks. The napkin would say; POV, Static Cam, Occult, !!!. The problem is this movie uses those tricks but couldn't tell you why. There is no reason Devil's Due is shot in POV format other than it is trendy. Worse yet, the nature of the POV or found footage in context of the script, absolutely wastes the potential. Can't help and wonder who put together the 12 months of footage that includes the couples handheld camera, one GoPro/Adventure cam, 16 static cams, and a handful of closed circuit camera perspectives from shopping malls and grocery stores. Maybe a lawyer or the police? Whoever put it together dedicated some serious editing hours. Let us reminds ourselves, our brains are needlessly thinking about all that crap when they don't have to. Copycat mentality, bad storytelling, and an overall lack of effort by the major studios put us in this place.

The perpetual release of a found footage/occult horror all trying to re-capture what "Paranormal Activity" did back in 2009 isn't working. "The Devil Inside" last year and  now "Devil's Due" this year show audiences are loosing interest in copycat filmmaking. Studios seem to be forgetting why Paranormal Activity worked so well. It was because it broke the copycat mold the Saw franchise had created with torture horror movies. Paranormal Activity was something new audiences could get excited (and startled) about. Torture horror had been on a run of about five or six years so audiences were craving something fresh. Now the same is happening with the on-going Paranormal trend. Even earlier this month we saw audiences show their fading interesting in Paranormal Activity movies when "Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones" had a very soft opening, $10 million less than its predecessor "Paranormal Activity 4" in 2012.

This takes me back to my initial point, there's a lack of innovation going on at the movies. Take a movie like "Mama," which released back in January of 2013. While it followed the familiar trend of paranormal entities, it at least took a straight-forward approach to storytelling. There's no found footage or point of view filming that leaves audiences questioning the motives of the person holding the camera. I really wish Devil's Due would have abandoned the POV storytelling instead of following along with the crowd. There's a great idea there (and a potential franchise), it is just plagued by a lack of any real effort.

Another example from this past weekend is Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. A film that was originally slated to release in 2013, but was bumped to January (for obvious reasons). I am of two minds about this film. Part of me is just happy to have a new Jack Ryan movie in cinemas. The casting is good and I wouldn't be opposed to more of Chris Pine and Kevin Costner on-screen together. The other part of me is upset they made Jack Ryan so damn vanilla and so utterly safe. There's a perfect summation of this in the the actual movie where CIA mentor William Harper (Kevin Costner) tells Jack Ryan (Chris Pine) to give him the simple version of his "very scary scenario" because he "doesn't have his (Ryan's) PhD." Why is Hollywood treating us like we are in Kindergarten? Part of what makes Jack Ryan so badass is his smarts. 'Shadow Recruit' misses the mark in a big way because it never allows itself to simulate the intelligence Jack Ryan's character should evoke. Ryan's best film still remains "The Hunt for Red October" because in that film Ryan uses his wits to outsmart a rogue Russian submarine captain, not his fists. Audiences would appreciate an intelligent espionage action thriller far more than they would the safe mediocre film Paramount served up. It is, once again, an unfortunate showing of a general lack of effort.

This lack of effort by major studios is painful but more so, hurtful. I love going to the movies. Every week I want to go to the cinemas at least once, but little by little major studios are taking away that pleasure. They have already made some of us way more picky than we used to be. Friends of mine who used to attend anything with me are now passing because they'd rather spend their money elsewhere. If studios are not smart, their marketplace could be pulled out from under them. Like so many have done, the masses may just stop going out to the movies. Now obviously I am exaggerating a tad, it is not like multiplexes will be vacant anytime soon, but studios ought to seek increasing attendance through innovation versus copycatting the latest trend.

There's no denying studios have seen a decline in attendance. Technology has changed how people see movies. There are a lot of good independent movies releasing through Video-OnDemand vendors these days. Outside of illegal routes, avid movie watchers can now access thousands of titles online through multiple vendors like Amazon Instant, Apple TV, Netflix, Vudu, and plenty of others. A lot of the titles released on these platforms see extremely limited theatrical releases but can reach millions instantly via a VOD platform. It is incredibly cool for all the people who do not live in markets where these titles see releases in cinemas but they can instantly watch them from the comfort of their own home.

A perfect example released via VOD from this past weekend is "Big Bad Wolves." It is a grim tale tracing revenge that blends tension and hilarity with a very clever balance. It is innovative while also having nostalgic sentiments audiences will enjoy. Israeli directors Ahron Keshales and Navot Papushado show they have genuine talent with their sophomore feature as a writer and director duo. They are the kind of filmmakers breathing life into genres like horror by paying respect to what influenced them but while also innovating and harvesting their own ideas. Big Bad Wolves and their debut feature "Rabies" are genuine must sees for genre fans.

In the future independent titles like Big Bad Wolves will have the edge over generic studio duds like Devil's Due if studios continue following whatever trend is hot. As an avid movie goer who craves a theatrical setting, I demand the perfect scenario where all sides are giving their best effort. I want to continue to see a steady increase of good VOD titles releasing. Reversely, I want studios to start taking risks on their wide releases. Stop using January (and the rest of the year) as a dumping grounds for mediocre regurgitated ideas. Stop looking to copycat what worked before. Yes, it is okay to borrow. Quentin Tarantino has shown us how to master the art of kitchen sink storytelling. Difference is folks, he's respectful to source material. He doesn't just reboot the same ideas, he takes a unique perspective on them.

There is plenty of unmined potential out there. It would be nice if the major studio system instead of rebooting all these franchises, reboot itself into embracing the unmined potential that exists. Stop forcing talented writers, directors, and overall creators into carbon copying the current trends. There's money to be made outside the comfort zone, go get it.