The Tentpole Collapse

At a recent panel discussion at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas predicted that the studios couldn’t afford to invest massive amounts of money on tentpole movies, which are those movies that cost a lot because they’re expected to make a lot. In most cases, such tentpole movies fail dramatically like “John Carter” and “The Lone Ranger.” The problem is that when studios make such a tentpole movie, they invest hundreds of millions on special effects and costumes, but very little on story structure. When your story structure is weak, no amount of computer-generated visual wizardry can rescue a poor story.

Instead of trying to make good movies, studios are trying to create franchise movies that can spawn sequels and action figures. Superhero movies are perfect for creating a franchise, although “The Green Lantern” proved that not all superheroes can earn back the millions they cost. Disney tried to create franchise movies based on their Disneyland attractions like the Country bears, the Haunted Mansion, and Pirates of the Caribbean. The idea is that a tentpole movie can earn enough money to make up for the losses of the other tentpole flops.

As “Variety” points out, this swing-for-the-fences approach is simply not sustainable. If multiple tentpole movies fail, the million lost could bankrupt one or more studios. Yet this strategy can be easily avoided just by focusing on creating interesting stories first and worrying about creating franchise movies second. It’s far easier to fix a script by changing words on a computer screen than it is to market a bad movie like “Jonah Hex” or “After Earth.”

Ultimately, Hollywood needs and will pay for good stories. Although they’ll cheerfully spend hundreds of millions on bad stories if they promise to include lots of special effects, Hollywood really does need good story tellers. If you focus on learning to tell a great story, your skills will eventually be in demand after Hollywood realizes that spending more on special effects will never work. Of course, by the time Hollywood realizes they need a good story in a script, the sun may have burned itself out by then.

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