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I’ve heard from a few people this week that “Hollywood finally came up with an intelligent creative film.” They are speaking of Inception of course, the Christopher Nolan project starring Leonardo Dicaprio as a dream manipulator and thief. Still, though Hollywood is known for its controversy, boundlessness, and liberalism. However, when it comes to what movies receive “the treatment” the business is surprisingly risk averse.
Before the instant classic, Tinseltown was already creating mind-bending, otherworldly and controversial movies. Of course with current technological advances these types of films are a more likely treat. And one movie can spark a lasting trend. If a single film makes a ton of money the Hollywood suits gather to see how they can make lightening strike twice at multiplexes. Consider X-Men in 2000 and Spider-Man in 2002 ... and then everything after that.
A decade ago, the success of these two motion pictures sparked a trend that is still growing. Superhero and comic book films make up some studio’s biggest tent-poles. They also offer opportunities for filmmakers to delve into obscure territory such as surprise hit 300, visually pleasing Sin City, dramatic and moody Watchmen, or highly stylized Kick-Ass. Aside from 300 though, the less well-known titles make less money in return -- a legitimate consideration for studio decision makers.
The truth is there is a legitimate reason Hollywood doesn’t heave its resources into intelligent concepts: audiences don’t support them. If Inception was not “created by the director of The Dark Knight" it would have been buried at the box office and forgotten by all but a fraction of the populace. One can’t compare a trend sparked by Spider-Man with Inception. Superhero movies have a built-in familiarity and international fan base that bolsters sales and interest.
An original film lacks that edge. The advantage is even lost on successful filmmakers. Consider Judd Apatow. He revamped the Bromance genre with successful hits including Pineapple Express and Knocked Up, but he hit the skids with what could be considered an intelligent comedy, Funny People, a film about a dying comedian.
All of this makes a person wonder why do so many terrible films get made. Formulaic romantic comedies, movies featuring talking animals, and Tyler Perry movies get made because there is a niche that can be counted on to support them (women, kids, and African Americans respectively). More importantly, those niche audiences are larger than the select group of people that take in an independent or art house film. So you’re left with Cats and Dogs, Madea Goes to Jail, and the latest from Jennifer Aniston at your local theater rather than a non-linear “thinkers” film such as Memento.
Recall that The Matrix was an intelligent film in 1999. How many similar films did it spawn? The answer lay in the fact that Inception was early on compared to enigmatice sci-fi franchise. Obviously, between then and now there has been a drought of comparably successful intricately conceived motion pictures. Still, Keanu Reeves thriller did spawn a glut of visually stunning special effects.
After The Matrix, action films simply have not looked the same. Andy and Larry Wachowski were acclaimed for their intellectual origin story; however the legacy was kicking CGI into high gear for the next decade of films and beyond. In my opinion, to this day, no single movie has introduced as many new techniques to film-making. Still, that wasn’t enough to change Hollywood’s standard factory picture from popcorn flick to intellectual romp.
In the same year, Fight Club, which was actually adapted from a novel, did stun audiences, but only to the tune of $37 million domestic – and that starred Brad Pitt. Requiem for a Dream later put drug use on display in a way that was shocking and creative. This movie did not contain a typical Hollywood ending either; it was brutally realistic and grim. Yet the film was virtually overlooked by the masses, selling $7.3 million worth of tickets.
Smart, offbeat, and Oscar-bait films have their season, stacking up between September and December. But those films, coming from both iconic directors and newcomers are shown in theaters in New York and Los Angeles if they’re lucky. Wide distribution is reserved for the few that gain some real traction in sales, surprising everyone. Think of the slow ascent to popularity of My Big Fat Greek Wedding in 2002 or even Paranormal Activity in 2009.
Memento didn’t open doors for stories with more depth; it only provided more opportunities for Christopher Nolan to continue to fund his brilliant concepts. The man is one unique director who has managed to climb above the fray of hungry aspiring filmmakers to highly respected artist. If the trend in esoteric movies continues, it will be another decade before we are comparing Inception to another game-changing hit.
Legendary directors like Martin Scorsese and controversial filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino will continue to push the envelope with critically acclaimed sleepers that become cult favorites years after their debut. But as for studios making big changes based upon the performance of one unique director and his one unique vision – don’t bet your luck.