San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Fast Food Cinema: A Sure Formula

Cinema: n. The art or technique of making films or movies; filmmaking.

Fast Food: n. Inexpensive food, such as hamburgers and fried chicken, prepared and served quickly.

Five weeks ago, “X-Men: The Last Stand,” directed by Brett Ratner, broke records as its $45 million intake during its opening Friday made it the second biggest opener in history (right after last year’s Star Wars episode). Last weekend, it grossed only $7 million. This movie is just the latest in Hollywood’s trend of churning out quick-thrills, no-frills, instant-gratification films, designed to open big and be forgotten a week later. The artistic value in these movies (if they can be called art) is about equal to the nutritional value of a Big Mac. Sure, if you’re hungry it’ll fill your stomach, but six hours later you won’t even remember that you ate it.

The parallels that can be drawn between present-day Hollywood and the fast food industry are numerous. Ultimately, the number-one item on both of these entities’ minds is to make money, and to do it in the quickest, safest, cheapest way possible. Their products can be produced quickly and efficiently and then sold to the greatest number of people with the least amount of fuss. And, of course, they are tried and true, stuff they know the masses like, produced quickly and with the least amount of thought possible, consumed rapidly, and then dismissed just as quickly.

To understand how the movies got to this point, it is necessary to go back to the history of cinema. The first major system of production was the “studio system.” During this era (1927-48) major studios such as Columbia, Universal and 20th Century Fox hired actors and crews and then assigned them to films. In this system, the studios were very much in control of the making of the movies, with writers, directors and actors often having little or no control over what they did.

Then came the first revolution. During the 1960s, ’70s and early ’80s, a new system arose, this time with the director in complete control of both artistic and production aspects. This was the age of mavericks such as Sergio Leone,Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen.

In the mid-1980s, the big corporations realized just how much money was coursing through the movie industry’s veins, and pretty soon all the major businesses were trying to get a cut of the profits. Coca-Cola boughtColumbia Pictures, News Corp bought 20th Century Fox, and most of the other major studios were sold off as well. The revamped studios then wrestled back control from the directors and set out to make as many commercial pictures as they could. This is the system that is still running today.

The problem with today’s mainstream movies is that we are basically getting the same movies year after year, in the same way we’ve been getting the same Big Mac since 1968. But the people behind Hollywood don’t want change, as change involves risk.

They want only to make movies in a risk-free, plain vanilla flavor that appeals to the largest audience possible. To do this, they follow a simple, nine-step formula, as follows:

1. Get an idea for a movie. Hopefully, it will be something guaranteed to draw an audience no matter what. This may include sequels (or prequels) for successful movies, tie-ins with popular TV shows or remakes of previously successful movies. If none of these are plausible, then simply create a hybrid between two blockbusters of previous years.

2. Work out the details. Hire the actors, preferably the most famous (or infamous) celebrities of the moment. Singers who can’t act but are currently in the top 40 are acceptable choices. Set the budget and the release date.

3. Find a director. Two things to look for: that he or she will be able to make the film within the budget you give him and in time for the release date you set; and that he or she will shoot the movie in the simplest andmost conventional way. People to avoid:

artistic, French or ambitious directors; these people might use a style that will alienate part of the audience or (God forbid) ask for a bigger budget.

4. (Optional) If you have time and/or are a traditionalist, write the script. However, considering how many rewrites it will go through and how much the actors and directors will deviate from it, you might as well not bother.

5. Shoot the movie.

6. Advertise like there’s no tomorrow. Hang posters, run trailers, cram as many commercials as legally possible onto TV. Whether these reflect the movie accurately is of no concern. Scour all of the advance reviews of the movie for three positive comments and have your advertisement team shout them from the rooftops. Purchasing and/or taking these comments out of context is in no way frowned upon.

7. Release the film and tabulate the results for the opening weekend. Considering the negative word of mouth that will spread and the nearly identical movie that will be coming out next weekend, this will be the only time when your movie will make money. Despite that, if you’ve followed the formula correctly, you should still net a nice profit. At this point you might want to consider sequel possibilities.

8. Three to six months later, release the DVD. Six months after that, release the twodisk special edition. A year after that, release the director’s cut. Two years later, the Criterion DVD. If necessary, lie about the content of later editions so that the five guys who actually liked the movie will buy all the DVDs.

9. Repeat, ad nauseam. This is the way Hollywood operates nowadays, an assembly line that churns out the same films year after year. For the most part, it has paid off. Even today, after ages of the same fast food, we continue going to the theaters to see these movies. Hollywood is run no longer by auteurs, but by corporate suits. Mainstream movies are no longer art, but business.

This trend has forced moviegoers looking for style and substance to look in places other than Hollywood. In recent years, European, Asian and, most noticeably, independent films have been steadily receiving more and more attention.While not as commercially successful as their Hollywood counterparts, independent films often receive more critical acclaim and staying power. It was no surprise when all five of the candidates for best picture in the most recent Academy Awards were all independent films, the highest-grossing bringing in just $83 million. Who knows? If this trend continues we might soon have another revolution on our hands.

Gabriel Urbina, 16, is in 10th grade at Blue Valley School in the western San José suburb of Escazú. At present, he is attending Oxbridge Summer Program at Oxford University in England, for which he was chosen based on exceptional academic performance. He writes for Blue Valley School’s paper, The Oracle, and has aspirations to be a writer.He lives in Santa Ana, southwest of San José


Comments are closed.