Echoes of Echoes of Echoes
I've been thinking a lot about pop culture and “content” and movies and what it takes to stand out in a world where audiences have instant access to vastly more hours of entertainment than they have the ability to consume in a lifetime. It's not enough to just make a good movie anymore, as people have immediate access to every other good movie ever made. Hell, they have access to every great movie ever made. How do you compete with The Godfather? How do you compete with every Bond movie? How does someone who makes movies fit into this world?
On a macro level, I think there are two ways to exist in this world as a filmmaker and film producer. Either you make as many movies as possible, and attempt to create a large library of “content” that has value mostly because of its size. If you have a sizable library, you have value to a lot of the new distribution systems just for that quantity. And if you're making enough of these films, you can start negotiating directly with the growing number of platforms around the world for full library distribution deals. You basically create value by being part of the noise that makes up the bed of mass content availability.
This is not the path for me. I've never been able to think in quantity terms. It's hard to produce mass amounts of quantity while still caring about the individual pieces of art that make up that library. I just can't do it.
So the second path is to focus on individual films. Artisanal filmmaking. But how do you make individual films stand out against the numbing noise of infinite content? How do you get someone to pull your book off the shelf in a library the size of the world?
For the record, I have almost no demonstrable success at figuring out the answer to this question. But it's the question that haunts every decision I make as a producer, and here's my current thinking on the topic.
I think the first approach to successful artisanal filmmaking is to make a movie that people think will deliver the same pleasure they got from something else that they love. This is where sequels and prequels and reboots and remakes and adaptations and franchises live. It's Bohemian Rhapsody. It's The Fate of the Furious. It's The Lego Movie. It's all the Star Wars and all the Avengers and all the Bonds. It's a direct attempt to stand out in the marketplace by latching onto something the audience already cares about.
But there are also indirect ways to fulfill this approach. You can promise the same pleasure of a prior entertainment experience through artist affiliation. It's Jordan Peele's new movie. It's a new Denzel Washington movie. It's “from the producer of PARANORMAL ACTIVITY.” It's “from the writer of TRAINING DAY.”
And then there are the trickier indirect ways to make audiences think they're returning to the same well. This is where we get into what I call echo movies. Taken is a movie with dozens of echoes. Similar feeling movies that ride in the wake of Taken's success. In the 90s, there was a booming industry of Quentin Tarantino echo movies. People see them because they hope the echo of a movie will bring them the same joy as the original. This is a dangerous place to be. Some echo movies can be a big success, but some of the biggest disasters of recent years are echo movies that either misjudged the appeal of the original or misjudged the continued appeal of this type of echo. At some point you start dealing with echoes of echoes of echoes and people can tell there's no there there. You get RIPD, Jack the Giant Slayer, and Cowboys and Aliens.
The key to success in this world seems to be knowing when audiences want more of the same, and then aggressively marketing your film to that audience. Spending a ton of money to remind people they like things like this, and here's the new thing like this. The risk of this approach is that you get the echo wrong and you're just spending tens of millions of dollars to remind people that no actually they don't want to see more of this. They've seen enough of it. Because that's how this works. People get sick of the echoes of echoes of echoes. They've had enough of Saw-likes and Taken-ishes. They want something new.
That's the other approach. Making something new. It's a much harder path to hew, but I think you can also stand out in the sea of noise by being unique. Being so different from everything else, that you force people to acknowledge and discuss you. Giving people joy in a way they haven't experienced it before. This is Boyhood and Birdman. This is Searching and Moonlight. This is Inception and Arrival. These are the movies that other people will echo. These are the splash in the pond, and every other movie is just a ripple. This is where I want to live.
The risk here is that maybe people don't give a shit that you made something unique.
I haven't quite figured that part out yet.