If There’s a Loving God, Why are there Bad Films?

Filmmaker Jon Gilbert told me the other day that a non-filmmaker friend had asked him, “if the hurdles filmmakers have to jump to get a project off the ground are so high, why do so many dreadful movies get made?” Those of us who aim to make movies are tortured by this question on a regular basis. We marvel at how such awful dialogue escapes the writer’s pen and makes it all the way to the actor’s mouth without anyone catching it.We gasp at how anyone could think there would be a good movie in a dumb idea like Pirates of the Caribbean: at World’s End? Most of all, we wonder why newcomers like us spend years painstakingly honing our projects often to meet with rejection when some established filmmakers can get funding to make films that feel as if they were conceived before the first cup of post-hangover coffee. It just isn’t fair, yet it happens all the time! WHY?!

"Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" - I demand an explanation!

There are many answers.

Let’s get the obvious stuff out of the way first: one of the major reasons for the occurrence of sub-prime movies these days is the industry’s addiction to sequels and adaptations. The sad truth is that of the top ten grossing films currently at the box office, only 2 of them are original stories. [I write this in October 2011, but it will probably still be true next month, and this time next year.] The problem with sequels is clear: if the original was enough of a hit to make a second film a viable prospect, it usually means that the guys who made the first movie got all the best meat off the bones of the idea. No surprise, then, that most sequels feel like reheated leftovers. Of course, there have been many great adaptations in movie history, but the truth is that most stories best suit the medium for which they were originally devised. So why are there so many adaptations? Simple – if a story has been proved to work and raise a following in one format, then the producers will find it easier to raise the funding for that story as a film project: it’s a known quantity. The fact that the story might be much better suited to the page, the stage, or the Play Station is something that’s only discovered once the project has hit the screens.

Needless to say a bad film is not necessarily an unsuccessful film: there are many movies that are critically panned but commercially minted.  In many cases confidence in the franchise creates such confidence in the project that marketing money is thrown at it until its commercial success becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Such films may be an artistic car-crash – but if it is a crash on a sufficiently large scale, featuring name actors and props that are worth their weight in gold then the movie’s excess becomes an event in its own right (if you don’t believe me, ask Mark Kermode). So many people go to see it in the first weekend that the film makes its money back regardless of its unsuitability for the screen or any other shortcomings.

Terrence Mallick gives us CGI dinosaurs. Did no one say anything?

Another major problem that all filmmakers face when making movies is the smell of rotten ego. This affects established filmmakers more than newbies; while you’re a nobody, everyone feels at liberty to offer tough love opinions on your work. While occasionally depressing, this is actually good news – they’re helping you make your project better, or at least identify its audience. If, however, you have the cinematic weight and standing of someone like Terrence Mallick, Woody Allen or Mike Leigh, you’ve been through that period of your career and are probably very glad to have come out the other side. You’ve been at this game for 30 years or more. You’ve won an Oscar for Chrissakes! And then some jumped-up little development executive wants to tell you there’s a problem with your script?! You ignore them, and the movie fails to reach its potential. It’s also entirely possible, common even, that such development executives, script editors, and the like can see the key that would unlock the great movie trapped inside the flawed script, a key that would be gratefully received by the grand old man of cinema (and it is usually a man), but they hold back. Sometimes they fear upsetting a powerful personage who could later bad-mouth them, possibly even because they assume that, what with their Oscar and 30 years’ experience, the aged auteur must know what they’re doing… surely?

The railway time tables that lead to defeat

Bad movies from filmmakers further down the ladder tend to be flawed for other reasons. Train timetables have been blamed for pushing the European heads of state into war almost a 100 years ago, their fear being that they would sacrifice strategic advantage if they didn’t get their troops moving right then. They let the logistics take over and make decisions for them, or so the argument goes. Many feature film producers and directors have failed to learn from the mistakes of Kaiser Wilhelm and his chums. The number of times I’ve seen producers who are very committed to script development, but then discover that James McAvoy has an interest in the project and a short window of availability in January. At this point, all interest in getting the script to work disappears, and it’s ‘coming , ready or not!’. I can absolutely understand why, and can sympathise with any producer who has made this tough call. Sadly it’s true that many more cinema-goers have paid for tickets because of the presence in the film of Brad Pitt, than because the script was by Frank Cottrell-Boyce, even though Frank’s work is much more important in making the movie memorable. In this respect audiences get the movies they deserve.

Once the producer with the flawed script has signed James McAvoy, a pattern of behaviour tends to follow: you might call it perpetual deferment. The decision to sign a star rather than fix the script is the first step: the team persuade themselves that the talent or star quality of the actor will make up for the shortcomings of the story – “of course we’ll believe she’s in love with him – he’s James McAvoy!” When the star fails to sell the underwritten character or distract from the plot holes, everyone starts muttering “we’ll fix it in the edit”. The editor then sweats away trying to make sense out of a story that doesn’t quite make sense and, as I’ve suggested before, no matter how good the editor is, the chances are he or she won’t succeed. Sometimes the editor is even replaced: everyone starts muttering “the new editor will make all the difference”. Most of the time they don’t. That’s when the director tends to say, either “we’ll fix it in the sound mix” or, more often, “the composer will make it work”. Then they discover that the power of a dubbing mixer only extends so far and that, while a composer can layer on emotion with a trowel, they can’t actually force the story to make any more sense. They usually give up at this point. Unless the director is so blindly determined that they believe that the film will be saved by the grader… Specific lessons may be learned about what was wrong with the script, but the broad lesson is rarely recognised. Gather the right cast, the right crew in the right location with the right budget and, most of all, give them the right script to work on, and the chances of the film being a winner are pretty high. All of the decisions about those factors are made before a single camera is set turning. The truth is: all mistakes are made in pre-production.

Of course there’s a much simpler answer to the question of why so many films are bad, an answer that is apparent to any filmmaker with any talent, and the answer that Jon himself gave to his friend – making a good film is surprisingly difficult!

Copyright © Guy Ducker 2011

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13 Responses to “If There’s a Loving God, Why are there Bad Films?”
  1. I agree so much with you that it would bring tears of recognition to my eyes! I was so bitterly disapppointed by The Tree of Life. I went because it was Terence Malick and Brad Pitt and Sean Penn. I went because it has a reward in Cannes and I was in Nice at the time. It should teach me a lesson.
    You can’t blame people for not looking at the script writers. For a vast majority of film goers, writers are totally unknown. You never see his/her name on the poster. Who knows that the author of the Beauty and the Beast is the Duchess of Beaumont? I saw a theatre advertising the show saying: “Author: Anon”. How many people heard of Victor Hugo?
    As for The Tree of Life, the trailer is the whole film. I don’t know why I felt it was an ‘imposture’. Maybe for children from 9 to 14.


  2. BZFilm says:

    Nice article. I stick to the opinion, that every movie has its viewer. In fact, I think seeing so many movies being made every year, is a good thing. Not everyone wants to rush to the theater, and watch a new blockbuster.

    Every viewer I believe, have his/her favorite (1) blockbusters/hollywood movies, (2) b-movies or independent movies, (3) animations/cartoons, (4) short films or documentaries. In this case, quantity is important, as people get to really chose what to watch.

    • guyducker says:

      I agree that there’s a need for a wide range of different types of movie, the wider the better, but the one sort of film that has little place is a bad one.

      What do I mean by a bad film? I suppose, in the terms of your question, I mean a film that doesn’t have an audience. A film that fails to deliver what it promised or what it set out to deliver, whether that be thrills, hear-warming moments or insights into the human condition. Of course we’re skirting near the borders of subjective opinion here but, while we can debate whether ‘Avatar’ was good or bad, I think there’s a working consensus that ‘Ananconda 3’ was probably a mistake.

  3. Ivan says:

    your description of the process by which one hopes the faults will be corrected is hilariously horribly reminiscent of truth. I even DID think that a different colour grading would help a scene…
    Faults are indeed made in prepro, but… not sure there are so many who have the ability to actually correct them. As rare as any vastly talented artist no?

  4. The bigger question is why so many movies used to have staggering levels of quality control. When the old Hollywood studios made the product and each owned their own shops (the cinemas), they were driven by quality control and customer loyalty. They were looking to build a longterm reputation for guaranteed excellence.
    They could and did recruit, diligently train, nuture and control the working diary of cast and crew. One studio had as many as 100 writers on any one day in a room who were paid to improve any given screenplay prior to shooting. The Studio producers would not hesitate to send back Laurel and Hardy movies for reshoots to improve them even when they were the most loved ‘stars’ of the 1930s !
    The new system has no customer loyalty except to stars and to franchaises (007, Pirates of The Caribbean, Harry Potter, Lord of The Rings, Diehard, Batman, Superman, Spiderman, X Men,etc) .

    To take STARS loyalty. This is falling and becoming more genre specific. Arnie at his peak could do action and slapstick comedy but not courtroom dramas. Russell Crowe has a following in an period action role not in romantic comedy nor it seems political thrillers (even with a great script). Stallone will never get an audience for a musical like Chicago. Julia Roberts stellar box office success was always romantic comedy.

    To take FRANCHAISES Johnny Depp has actually hit a nail on the head and the article misses it completely. The global paying cinema audience in this era will put up $1 billion everytime for slapstick, silly, jolly, funny escapism. Ironically they are looking for the new Laurel and Hardy (in vain) or the new 1970s Roger Moore type 007 James Bond. This is anathema to so many ‘film makers’ and ‘film critics’ who think they know what they ought to want. Ideally they want to change the paying cinema going public NOT change their frequent failure to understand their core wants and needs.
    So we are going to get an Oscar chasing darker action-light humour-free slapstick free 007 James Bond next year. The last two ‘darker’ (but not as dark as the next time) 007 movies made only half as much as a Pirates of The Caribbean movie. So clearly the answer is to make them darker and more angst ridden and Oscar worthy as opposed to funnier and more fantastic in the 70s mode…which took far more money (allowing for ticket price inflation) than the new ones. But of course the newsest 007 will be hailed by critics as a rare great film even if the undeserving audiences do not turn up to it in sufficient numbers !
    007 is the biggest franchaise with 23 films over 50 years. It is almost unique in having customer loyalty to the nth degree. The producers have years to prepare the script, get the director and cast …and crew. Yet now the 1960s -2005 regular 007 crew have all gone, it is likely to show.
    This was the closet to a studio family of employees driven by quality control.
    When every film is made as a one off of throwing people together with no one except the stars likely to be hurt by it being a dog…and everyone including the producers having dozens more film irons in the fire which they are contracted for…who cares ? This team will never work together again. No one notices which studio nominally produced it or distributed it. Just take the money, get it done, move on. No one is saying about Laurel and Hardy films at their box office peak, ‘Go film that scene again, because you can do it better’.

    • guyducker says:

      You raise some interesting points. I have to say my experience of working with Hollywood studios does not tally with your account of their reduced will to enforce standards, at least during post-production. With the Hollywood or Hollywood-backed feature films in whose cutting rooms I’ve worked it has not been uncommon for the studio to insist on reshoots. I can’t speak from experience as to their quality control at script stage… unless you count the experience of having watched a great many Hollywood movies made from really bad scripts. In that respect, you’re probably right!

      Regarding franchises, I’m not suggesting that franchises don’t make good business sense, quite the reverse much of the time they’re all too successful. What I’m saying is that very often the films they produce are bad. In this respect I mean by ‘bad’ that an audience that flocked to the cinema because of the first film or the source material, come away feeling short-changed. Given the multi-million dollar publicity campaigns behind these movies, a franchise film only needs to be good enough to make an exciting trailer, so it can clean up on its first weekend. Hit and run.

      As for the Bond movies, I’d take issue with your thoughts here too. While ‘Die Another Day’ performed pretty well at the box office, it killed the franchise for a time. Why? I think it’s generally agreed that the level of fantasy was taking it back in the direction of the Roger Moore films, and it got a much-deserved critical mauling. Everyone thought it was time to call it a day. It was with the much darker ‘Casino Royale’ that the fortunes of the franchise were restored. I wouldn’t even accept that the Eon mini-studio was even that good at quality control. ‘Tomorrow Never Dies’ was a box office and critical embarrassment and, along with a number of films in the franchise, it looks pretty creaky now, even compared with thrillers of its day.

  5. Guy,
    This is a debate in amity and respect, not hostility. I say this as internet blogs can miss the voice tone. This is a pleasant open minded open hearted discussion.
    The opening scene of DIE ANOTHER DAY was and is regarded as good as it gets on a 007 film. This was all thanks to Vic Armstrong who had also done the speedboat chase outside of The Houses of Parliament in a previous Pierce Brosnan movie.
    There was and is genuine division over the Madonna theme song. Some loved it, others hated it. No middle ground. We can all agree it was not Shirley Bassey.
    The fencing duel, the other second unit action scenes (away from the snow) were right up there and agreed to be at the time.
    Halle Berry garnered great publicity and kudos, and the fact she got the Oscar during the publicity period also helped.
    What severely marred the movie was the snow episodes, the unbelievable invisible car (which killed off John Cleese in 007 franchaise), surfing on a snowboard in an avalanche.
    Here, The culprit was the director who insisted on the fantasy levels which Vic Armstrong the second unit action director (and very experienced 007 family member and via his father-in-law back to Dr No) urged him not to include. Moreover the genius action scenes of car chases on ice organised by Armstrong etc were edited to be surreal and lose all sense of reality.
    Rather than blow away the French Connection car chase, it was for once the director and editor who cut the highlight of the film.
    This was because a one-off director with no previous 007 form nor committed to do another was brought in. This new policy spoils the continuity and career commitment of the 007 family. Each new director wants their own team. If you get a non-007 team, then tend not to get it but anyway they have moved on next picture. There were very few 007 directors for the first 16 films. Peter Lamont (art work, set design) and the Armstrongs -Leach family (the action) and others kept a huge continuity. Some cast members were around from the 60s to late 90s.
    But on DIE ANOTHER DAY The 007 family, what was left of it, were over ruled about the surreal inappropriate fantasy scenes.
    The 007 movie producers have always tried to include the hot genre of the moment in their films. For example LIVE AND LET DIE (after Shaft and blaxploitation box office fad), MOONRAKER (in the middle of STAR WARS and EMPIRE STRIKES BACK), DIE ANOTHER DAY (with a big nod to the MATRIX box office fad of non-real action). I suppose we should be grateful they are not chasing vampire or zombie box office.
    But here is the rub.
    Pierce Brosnan delivered at the box office on DIE ANOTHER DAY. He was not dropped because of the box office.
    Usually the Bond producers cast a cheap actor to play 007 on a 4 picture deal. Cheap in the sense of not being a $20 million against 20% of the gross box star such as Harrison Ford, Bruce Willis, John Travolta, Arnie, Stallone, Gibson, and others achieved in the early and mid 1990s.
    Brosnan who was mainly doing TV before 007 (apart from support in Mrs Doubtfire) was on a nice wage for some but nowhere near the market rate for the box office. His agent wanted a big percentage and also over $10 million (although not quite $20 million) to do another. His agent priced him off the job.
    Brosnan also injured his leg and cost them 7 days shooting time. There were concerns that at 51 and 53 the next time two times out, he may just be getting into sell by date time as a high action hero. Connery only did it in his early to mid 30s. Moore was such a box office asset as 007 that they kept him on even when he was 10 years past the age he could do the action as opposed to the ‘Don’t take this too seriously darling’ light comedy humour.
    Brosnan’s agent was seeking too much money at the wrong time.
    It was the agent’s belief that he was indispensible which cost him another 007. Then again he has stayed in work and Mama Mia has suited his late 50s more than 007.
    Like Dr Who, the 007 industry has learned that a recast usually gives an uplift in curiosity interest in the first outing as well as the tens of millions in free advertising speculation of who will be the new 007. The 007 publicity machine fuels speculation and rumour. The hot money was on Clive Owen less than 7 days before Daniel Craig was displayed at the official press conference. At this stage Craig’s best box offfice in the lead role was $12 million. He signed to do 4 films and in fact the first did have an increased budget on DIE ANOTHER DAY and increased marketing budget. Ticket prices increased by a big margin between DIE ANOTHER DAY and CASINO ROYALE. At very best in financial terms (money invested, money recouped) Casino can claima tie.
    However, QUANTUM OF SOLACE on a much bigger budget and bigger marketing budget lost money. It is this -and not the convenient smokescreen of MGM financial problems – which sent the producers playing for time for the public to forget Quantum. The only two times that 007 has been in peril were 1989-1995 hiatus and the post-Quantum period. Both times the darker 007 did not match the cinema going paying public mood.
    Whatever you or I think of ‘Tomorrow Never Dies’ it was not a financial failure and the DVD sales and TV ratings for its continued reshowing suggest that again the public know what they want.
    CASINO ROYALE traded on the uplift from a new 007 which always happens (as with the first episode of a new Dr Who). It had a much bigger budget and much bigger marketing budget than the Brosnan ones. It was released in a market where global cinema revenue was rapidly rising. The fact the even bigger budget QUANTUM took less money than Casino Royale, and that combined they only took the same as Pirates of The Caribbean 4 …is a sign that they may be going in the wrong direction.
    But they really are doing this full bloodedly. The next 007 will be a smaller budget than Quantum but it will be a much different darker 007. Sam Mendes is determined to put a new twist to the genre.
    My guess is that he will produce a 007 which divides opinions and shows that different movies appeal to different people.

    To put my cards on the table my favourite 007 was DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER. My favourite film of the 70s was Towering Inferno, followed by The Odessa File, Day of The Jackal, French Connection 1 and 2, the Taking of Pelham 123, The Godfather 1 and 2, Marathin Man, Murder on The Orient Express (which alas loses rewatch appeal once you know whodunnit), Rocky, The Empire Strikes Back, The Seven Ups.
    My favourite 1980s films were Ghostbusters, Beverly Hills Cop, Chariots of Fire, Crocodile Dundee, For Your Eyes Only, Living Daylights, The Untouchables, Rocky 3, Back To The Future, Top Gun, Midnight Run, Naked Gun, Wall Street, Fatal Attraction, The Fourth Protocol, Lethal Weapon, Predator, Inner Space, The Three Amigos, Weekend at Bernies, Trading Places, and best of all Diehard.
    1990s Pretty Woman, the Pelicon Brief, Diehard 2, The Negotiater, Usual Suspects, Crimson Tide, Bad Boys, Stargate, Men In Black in fact almost every Will Smith film, The Fugitive, Under Siege, Pulp Fiction, Get Shorty, Face Off, The Rock, Lock Stock, The Full Monty, Independence Day, and best of all Con Air.
    In the last decade the first two Bourne films but not the third (because once the love interest and revenge thereof went, it lost its moral centre…his search for ID just did not do it for me by film 3) but most of all Inside Man. Spike Lee and Denzel and Clive Owen were never better. Yet I can accept many people think these films are examples of bad movies. Whereas I want them to be made three times a week !
    I think Citizen Kane is woefully over rated (and was not well received by the paying public) but Casablanca is a masterpiece. Others disagree about both statements.

  6. Laurie McDowell says:

    In regards to the centrality of the script, I remember working on a Wesley Snipes picture where the script could not be changed by one iota because the star’s lawyers had signed off on it. Shooting that script was now contractual even though the story had holes in it, discontinuities and did not make sense. The Director was then put under such strict control from the LA producer that he was given no creative freedom at all.
    I much prefer to see a Director who is in sufficient control of the process to be able to change the script on the day; often consulting with the leading actors to heighten the emotions, remove the weak lines etc. In other words work on it as a theatre group might work to heighten a performance but with even more freedom to change lines and whole scenes. This is the way that many great directors worked in the past and whilst there has always been conflict between the artistic creatives and the studios/ producers, and there always will be, it is at times such as the Hollywood revival of the 1970’s, when producers have backed up the directors’ judgement that some of the greatest films ever were made. Of course it is risky and the big budget films with lots of pre-planned special fx mitigate against this. Storyboards on set now come with computer animation, character faces, location backgrounds et al as if all that had to be done on the day was to render the same thing in a different format.
    Yet despite all the attempts at predictability, remote control and director subordination there is an an artistic, individualist element which is always necessary and elusive to systematic control. I think that whilst we sometimes have great production teams that make good films that is because they have good judgement and the ability to input their opinions, in very many cases bad films are the result of the politics of control of the production that makes even the most expensive film seem inane and banal.

  7. s.c italy says:

    to have a good story is difficult and painful, the audience nowadays is less sesitive to nuance
    and subtile aspect of charachet psicology and storytelling because of tv influence and less reading at books.
    Action movies are great but a more intellectual approach to the issues and topics narrated in modern movies should let the audience think and maybe also grow a little .
    maybe here in europe we have a old intellectual tradition less image oriented and more conceptual or related theatre, and that is completely disappeared from
    todays big bugget movies.
    industry should have a bit of courage at all

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