Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Tuesday Talkback: James Cameron, Avatar, and the Revolution of story

This week's Entertainment Weekly has a really interesting interview with James Cameron regarding Avatar. At one point, he talks about the anxiety that major studios are facing in trying to sell these large movies. He says that the attitude is that it's getting harder to make money on these expensive films because of falling DVD revenues and costs aren't going down. Now, I find that a somewhat ironic statement considering this year's box office is on track to be the most successful year in history. Then he makes a statement I find compelling considering what it could mean for the future of storytelling.

"The audience is more demanding. If you showed anything that's been done in the last couple years - in terms of the quality of the visual effects - to an audience 20 years ago, they'd be s--ting themselves with their mouths wide open. Now they're like [shrugs] 'Meh.'"

While it's understandable that this terrifies studios because they can't count on nifty visual effects to be a draw in and of themselves, as a storyteller, I found it inspiring for precisely the same reasons. My theory is that we are quickly approaching a saturation point, where the fact that CG can create anything will mean that the mere achievment of a visual effect will cease to be impressive.

For too often, films like Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen have used story as a means to produce interesting visual effects, as opposed to employing visual effects as a means of telling a compelling story. The cart has come before the horse for so long that the studios have been selling the cart with little more than a nag attached.

And now James Cameron says that from his point of view, audiences are increasingly less impressed with those visuals. This leads to the question - if you can't use visual effects to put assess in the seats, what will get them there?

Story. Compelling characters. Plots we haven't seen before.

At least that's my theory. Is substance coming back into style? What do you think?


  1. Star Trek and Transformers have both proven that you don't need story, plot or characters to have the two biggest movies of the year.

    If Hollywood wises up and makes franchise pictures with characters we give a shit about, then they'll make -more- money. However, they won't -stop- making money off of SFX visuals.

    Hollywood's biggest problem is that they are running out of hot properties to exploit and are now starting to cannibalize utter, utter crap that nobody gives a shit about (Battleship: The movie).

    It's really sad. Filmmakers have the ability to do ANYTHING now visually, but do not have the skill, heart, or soul to take advantage of the technical VFX advances with a story we give a crap about. Look at INDY IV. Even Spielberg has lost his way. I could watch Raiders on an endless loop. I don't think I can ever watch INDY IV ever again.

  2. If you showed anything that's been done in the last couple years (or 10 years) - in terms of the writing, storytelling, plot, character, originality in the 1940's or 1970's they'd also "be s--ting themselves with their mouths wide open." Shocked at the utter tripe and stupidity that passes for entertainment nowadays.

    You'd think that spending 200 million on a movie would be even more motivation to take a little time before hand to make sure the screenplay was up to par. But apparently not.

  3. I LOVE James Cameron. Glad to read it sounds like he's more interested in developing great stories and not specical affects. THOUGH with the quarter BILLION dollar price tag "Avatar" ran up, one could EASILY make the point he's talking from both sides of his mouth as he used some of that money to develope movie making technology.

    I believe their is a latent desire by the the American public to go to the movies. That's why even when some pretty shoddy movies are released do well. People want to see something new and aren't very discerning; it's the latent need for entertainment NOW. Placement and markting works on a lot of people too, and I think can skew the numbers to look better than a movie artistically deserves.
    What sucks is the drek which does well financially cues some people (just in it for the money), that is where they should be investing future money, and the cycle of making bad movies continues.

    What Hollywood needs is an excalltation of ARTISTS; people who care about movies and artually trying to make good stuff. Not stuck-up prima donnas, but people who have good taste and are actually trying to make thought provoking work. James Cameron is one of those people.
    I hope "Avatar" does well. Running up a tab of a QUARTER OF A BILLION DOLLARS is quite staggering. "Avatar" needs to be "Star Wars" big. If it isn't someone is going to be losing a lot of $$...

    - E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

  4. "Hangover" didn't have any effects, and made a ton, really high on the gross. Not sure if it had substance either, I skipped it, lol.

  5. I think Cameron is a little off-base with this one. Of the many films I saw this year the effect that drew the biggest gasp from the audience involved a woman being pulled out of bed by her ankle. And that certainly wasn't some million dollar shot, just a very clever visual executed at the right moment. But more importantly, it looked real.

    CGI rarely looks real. It looks like CGI. And while visually dazzling, it immediately ruins my suspension of disbelief when I can tell that the busy street our characters are walking down is actually some green screen lot in Burbank. It's like those old Godzilla movies where you could tell the tanks he was fighting were wind-up toys. They may be shinier more expensive wind-up toys now, but I can still tell.

    I'm sorry, but if Aliens was remade today using the greatest advancements in visual technology and sent back in time to be shown side-by-side with the original when it came out I doubt that the audience would be shitting themselves over the remake.