Fall 2006

Why Do Bad Movies Get Made?

Film professor Michael Gonzales gives an insider’s look at Hollywood corporate culture.

By Michael Gonzales

I’ve often been asked by students how bad movies get made. Why, for example, does a movie with huge potential — an A-list cast, large budget and good concept — flop?

To answer that question, we need to look at corporate culture. In Hollywood, a studio executive is under enormous pressure to make money for the studio and its shareholders. One of the ways that happens is when the executive can find a major star, producer or director who is attracted enough to a studio to make a deal committing several feature films to that studio. M. Night Shyamalan, for example, made three successful films, The Sixth Sense, Signs and The Village. Because of his signature style of filmmaking, Walt Disney Studios dangled a nice financial carrot to keep him on their roster. Yet, Disney, in a rare move, severed ties with Shyamalan when it passed on producing his most recent film, Lady in the Water. In reply, Shyamalan commented that, “Disney no longer valued individualism.” However, Lady in the Water did poorly its first weekend in release, which gave Disney executives some boasting rights. Now, Warner Brothers, who courted Shyamalan, will have first crack at his other films because they are betting on him to succeed down the road.

The same thing happens with actors. A studio executive wants to make a deal with an actor and — instead of just signing that actor to one picture — will give him or her a production office on the lot and a three-picture deal. Since that actor owes the studio films, the actor may commit to a script simply to fulfill the contract.

Another reason bad films get made is because someone, who may not necessarily be qualified for specific work, happens to be in the right place at the right time. Many years ago, over a weekend, I was helping a president of well-known production company move furniture to his new offices. When he found out I had a graduate degree in film, I was named vice president and head of development for the firm. I started Monday with a private office on the top floor of a Hollywood high rise! In the same way, people less qualified have risen to high ranks in the industry simply because they were positioned at the magical place at the right moment. I have seen numerous deals like that go through, where people get brought into a project because they were at a lunch meeting with someone who recommended them — no questions asked about their credentials. (A good used car salesman with very little talent can make it.) Given this, it’s easy to see how a bad film could get made.

Generally speaking, it is said that a good script is needed to make a good movie. Yet, many studio executives do not read the scripts submitted, so they depend on notes from script readers — usually college-age interns — who jot down the good and bad points of a screenplay. The studio executive then talks to the director or producer as if he or she has read the screenplay but, in reality, has only relied on the “Cliff Notes” made by an intern. When a studio gets serious about a project, usually the producers and studio executives spend time reading the scripts to make a final decision.

Sometimes, when celebrities want to make big purchases — perhaps buy a beautiful villa in Tuscany or a private airplane — they will have their agents call studios and let them know of their availability to star in, say, Tidy Bowl Man. Their big advances will arrive shortly. They will buy their villas. They will make the films. The films will flop, but by then they are eating olives from their estate and all is well in their world.

Michael Gonzales (Ph.D. ’03) teaches film at Biola. He has a graduate degree in screenwriting from the University of Southern California and a doctoral degree in intercultural education from Biola. Gonzales taught at USC as a production professor for 10 years. He has sold three scripts and optioned two and is currently directing television commercials and producing television specials.


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  • Brian Maloney December 31, 2011 at 7:51 PM

    This is such an interesting article because it happens all of the time, but no one really understands why a seemingly good piece of cinema won't make it among the rest of the successful movies. I often liken it to the actual realease timing. It seems that our society is cyclical in it's trends and hyping of particular events and people. As a result, if the subject matter of a particuar movie isn't hitting any 'hot buttons' at that particular moment of being advertised to, the film consumer may not jump on the opportunity despite a stellar cast of characters.

    Nonetheless, one of the things that attracted me most to this post is that of Mr. Shyamalan. It is quite obvious that he is extremely talented (the sixth sense) is one of my all time favorite movies among simple plan and many others. However, everything is a supply and demand based decision and as for 2011 and it being the last day of '11 today, the overall ticket sales for this year was down 4% and the lowest since the mid 90s.

    This is not just a taste thing, it's a global thing as well.

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