Wednesday, January 18, 2012

If George Lucas can't get an unmarketable movie made, what chance do YOU have?

From an excellent New York Times article about George Lucas:

This was a new feeling for George Lucas. He made a movie about a plucky band of freedom fighters who battle an evil empire — a movie loaded with special effects like no one had seen before. Then he showed it to executives from all the Hollywood studios. And every one of them said, “Nope.”

One studio’s executives didn’t even show up for the screening. “Isn’t this their job?” Lucas says, astonished. “Isn’t their job at least to see movies? It’s not like some Sundance kid coming in there and saying, ‘I’ve got this little movie — would you see it?’ If Steven (Spielberg) or I or Jim Cameron or Bob Zemeckis comes in there, and they say, ‘We don’t even want to bother to see it. . . .’ ”

Lucas sighs. It’s true that the movie, “Red Tails,” is a biopic about the Tuskegee Airmen rather than a space opera starring the Skywalker clan. But the snub implied that Lucas’s pop-culture collateral — six “Star Wars” movies, four “Indiana Jones” movies, the effects shop Industrial Light and Magic and toy licenses that were selling (at least) four different light sabers this Christmas — was basically worthless. When “Red Tails” opens in theaters on Jan. 20, it will be because Lucas paid for everything, including the prints. 

Let that sink in - George Lucas is responsible for six of the most successful films ever made (ten if you include the four Indiana Jones films) and studio executives still had no interest in making or distributing his passion project.  It this wasn't some character drama set in 1400s Europe - this was a film set in World War II with plenty of action!  Now perhaps the box office failure of 2006's Flyboys was fresh in everyone's mind ($60 million budget/$13 million domestic gross).  Or it could have been, as Lucas stated during a recent visit to The Daily Show, that the all-black cast would be a hard sell abroad.

Either way, for up-and-coming screenwriters, this paints a chilling picture.  Every studio in town not only had no interest in making the first non-Star Wars or Indiana Jones film that George Lucas produced in over two decades, they couldn't even figure out how to market it!  If every studio in town is too scared to take a chance on George Lucas, what chance do any of us have of wandering outside the box?

This reminds me of the story about how a studio executive suggested that, instead of making Schindler's List, Steven Spielberg and the studio make a large donation to the Holocaust Memorial Museum. The exec's logic was that "no one" was going to see a black-and-white movie about the Holocaust.

When you're writing for yourself, you can tell any story you want.  When you need someone else's money to tell that story, you're going to have to convince them they'll not only get their money back, but also turn a profit on it.  This is why marketability is one of the things that readers like me have to weigh.  I'm sure we've all pushed forward commercially dubious material when it's well-written, but marketable screenplays will already rule the day.  That's the way the system has always worked and it's never going to change.  You can bitch about how unfair that is, or you can attempt to work within it.

Put yourself in the studio's shoes - and ask if they have reason to expect a return on their investment.  As much as it pains me to say - think like a studio executive.  Those guys might be to skittish to take a risk on the creator of Star Wars - but they're not afraid to insult him by snubbing the screening of his film.

If that doesn't chill your bones, I don't know what will.


  1. I don't mean to argue your central point, but there's another way to interpret this story. Consider:

    1. Resisting the opportunity for hyperbole, George Lucas is rich enough to finance the production and distribution himself. He was clearly prepared to do so from the beginning, which I deduce from: a) he in fact has financed the production and distribution himself, and b) he produced the finished movie before seeking a distribution deal.

    2. The studios know he is rich enough to distribute the film himself, and thus would be asking themselves a) why does he want us when he doesn't need us, b) is Lucas trying to "spread the risk", and if so, why would we take a risk if he doesn't want to? and c) what conditions does Lucas have that we usually don't agree to?

    The fact that at least one studio's executives didn't even show up suggests that the conditions of the offer were so unfavorable that it didn't matter how good/marketable the film was.

    At least in that regard, Lucas probably didn't follow your advice to "put yourself in the studio's shoes".

  2. After the fiasco that was the Star Wars prequels I wouldn't want to do so much as loan Lucas a quarter to feed the meter. Not everything he touches is gold.

  3. I like Sean's point that there may be more to this story. But there's another important point not mentioned.

    Bitter advises us to think like studio execs (and the readers they employ) because a project must be marketable. The trouble is: Studio execs and readers DON'T KNOW what is marketable.

    They know what HAS BEEN marketable sometimes in the past, but the box office shocks them nearly every month. Remember, Fox was so convinced the original Star Wars would bomb that they gave the merchandising rights to Lucas -- a billion-dollar mistake. All the studios turned down Gibson's Passion of the Christ -- a half-billion-dollar mistake.

    So yes, if you want to sell to studios, think like your customers. But if you believe in your project, and can bypass the studios, go for it. It might work, it might not. No one, including the "experts", knows for sure.

  4. To Peter's point: I see some reinforced conditioning responses in the creative fields: green lighting projects that seemed to have been already been market tested (waves of remakes (e.g. Total Recall, Dirty Dancing), any song with a sample, the YA/paranormal romance market...


    1. Lucas’ project seems to be something no one's tried before (all black cast in a major movie) – apparently studio execs believe that even Lucas himself cannot pull it off…can it be a case of bad marketing on the part of his team?

    2. STILL, isn’t the behavior of one of those exes puzzling? I guess, as BSR stated, not many folks in Hollywood have the luxury of being polite to the worst of the worst, but to not even preview a new project from Lucas??? Some grudge about JarJar?

    Or did s/he have better things to do with his/her time like attending a pitch for ‘Confessions of the Shopahoholic 2”?