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Raiders of the Lost Art

By Connor P. McKnight

The movie theater has always been a magical place. When the lights go down, the audience is treated to a two-hour vicarious journey through the eyes of a hero. A Sunday afternoon can turn into a shootout with outlaws, an alien invasion, drunken debauchery in Las Vegas, or a love affair with a ripped A-lister.

But recently, Hollywood has been defiled by another industry. Now, studios have transformed from merely the financial catalysts for works of art to massive firms operating with dreams of immense profits. Business has taken over the film industry and with this seizure, creativity and originality have been replaced with profitability and practicality.

In the “Golden Age of Film” classics like Citizen Kane and Casablanca pulled in moviegoers even as they broke new ground. Now the industry is bent on mass producing the cookie-cutter tales of spandex-clad superheroes.

Now, studio executives, many of them more versed in business than film, are more concerned with minimizing risk in production. This means that studios look toward previous successes as a means to achieve profits in the future, and so they favor sequel after sequel. This ideology gives rise to the Men in Blacks III’s of the world, the resurrection of Spiderman after a brief respite, and even a rehashing of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Total Recall.

Comparing the top grossing films in 1981 with 2011, the juxtaposition is glaringly apparent. The year 1981 saw the birth of Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark and has seven original screenplays among the top 10 highest grossing of the year, including Chariots of Fire. The year 2011 saw nearly 10 billion dollars in revenue among its top 10 films and included absolutely no originals.

As rational individuals, studio executives are searching for means to maximize their respective studio’s profits. The trends point to the fact that moviegoers are drawn to the theater by familiarity. With the increase in ticket prices and ubiquitous availability of films via Netflix and Blockbuster, moviegoers are only willing to part with the $8.12 that constitutes the average price of a movie ticket, if they are familiar with the subject matter.

With the production of these sequels, the art of film is completely taken out of the equation. Studios are well aware that these hefty-budgeted, mainstream movies will reap lucrative returns regardless of how artfully the film is crafted. Production is sped up to bring about a hasty release. Elaborate effects are added. And during this blockbuster’s tenure in theaters, hundreds of millions of dollars are generated.

So while the sequel becomes more and more profitable, original ideas serve, in the eyes of studios, as tremendous risks. Why produce a script of a completely unorthodox nature when the studio can just pay a writer to craft a new version of Jurassic Park and make hundreds of millions of dollars in the process?

As an aspiring screenwriter myself, this sudden loss of art and creativity in film is particularly alarming. It makes breaking into the industry all the more difficult.

When I had my first meeting with an agent at William Morris Endeavor, a talent agency, as a sweating, nervous wreck of a teenager, I could not comprehend how entrenched this new “marketability” mindset has dug itself into the film industry. Being told directly that any spec script, the industry term for original screenplay, is nearly impossible to sell seems counter-intuitive for an industry bent on the creativity of storytellers.

The market for originality in Hollywood seems to have been relegated to the independent spectrum. The disparity between the major studios and these smaller productions has only been exacerbated in recent years. The fact of the matter is that these smaller pictures would actually benefit profusely from a larger budget, particularly with regard to acting talent and distribution. An independent picture, no matter how original it may be, goes through the film festival circuit without hardly ever branching out to national audiences.

And the sad part is, most of these films mirror the original artistic aspects that were native to the early film industry: an original script, an intricate array of shots and a human story without exemplary and extraordinary effects. These movies focus on aesthetics and attempts to salvage an industry plagued by a business mindset.

Now finding the next blockbuster entails making a stop at the comic book store and picking up the latest edition of a Marvel Comic or reproducing a movie made 30 years ago. No longer are the creative worlds of screenwriters coming alive in elaborate productions.

The harsh reality is unavoidable, but there are many aspiring screenwriters and actors hungry for original projects. Hollywood may not be the imaginative think tank it once was, but that doesn’t mean that it couldn’t be that again.

Connor P. McKnight ’16 is an editorial comper living in Grays Hall.

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