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Why do bad films get made?
February 12, 2010 11:16 AM   Subscribe

I am wondering how Hollywood movies that end up being complete failures both critically and commercially end up getting all the way through the process of being made and released into cinemas? Why isn't there more quality control?

This isn't meant to be an argument about subjective "taste," as there are plenty of movies out there I don't like but feel have a right to exist. I also understand movies that may not hold much critical value or be considered "a good movie" but were obviously made with as a commercial calculation (many action and comedy films fall into this category).

What I am wondering about are big-budget, Hollywood films with multiple stars that end up just falling completely flat...the ones that are truly painful to watch all the way up to just plain mediocre, due to things like bad dialogue, no coherent plot, or even when you can see the actors hearts just aren't in it, with the primary result being near unanimous critical panning and disappointing box office sales.

It's much easier to understand a bad novel or record being made because of the relatively few number of people involved in creating those things, but a Hollywood movie?? I mean we're talking hundreds and hundreds of people working on this thing, and it goes through so many different stages, from the script to casting to pre and post production, market testing etc...why does no one ever say, "um, this clearly isn't working, let's rethink this?" Is it just a matter of being too far along budget-wise to pull the plug or make radical changes? Why do stars sign up for bad films, can't they tell the script sucks? Thanks!
posted by the foreground to Media & Arts (39 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
 
I’m no expert, but I’m willing to bet that momentum has a lot to do with it. Once the thing is shot, it can have months of post-production. At what point would you cut your losses? If you’ve gotten that far you may as well wait for the dvd release – a lot of shitty movies make up their costs on dvd sales alone, especially in foreign markets
posted by Think_Long at 11:21 AM on February 12, 2010


First of all, no one knows which movies will hit. Not until first weekend is over. No one. Fox thought STAR WARS (the original) was going to be a huge flop.

Some good movies make no money and some very bad movies make a whack of money. You just don't know.

Second, once you've invested $60 million in a movie, and $40 million in publicity... you're going to release it. At least you'll make some money back.
posted by musofire at 11:21 AM on February 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


Why do stars sign up for bad films, can't they tell the script sucks?

They get paid whether the movie is good or bad. So does the producer and the director. All the people who are in a position to say, "This really is shit; we ought to stop now" will lose out if that happens.

Also, once the production process is moving forward, most of the expense money is sunk. If they shut down production, everyone still gets paid.

the ones that are truly painful to watch all the way up to just plain mediocre, due to things like bad dialogue, no coherent plot, or even when you can see the actors hearts just aren't in it, with the primary result being near unanimous critical panning and disappointing box office sales.

There have been movies like that which have ended up making a fortune at the box office. Here's the deal: no one knows what will be a hit and what will be a miss. There are hundreds of cases in the history of cinema of films everyone thought would be a hit which ended up commercial duds, and films people thought would be crap which ended up making a fortune.

Not even Steven Spielberg makes a hit every time. Hollywood is all about gambling, and sometimes sure things lose and sometimes long shots pay off. So when facing a situation like the one you're describing, like all addicted gamblers the people involved tell themselves that somehow or other it'll be OK.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 11:25 AM on February 12, 2010 [2 favorites]


It takes a long time to make a movie and nobody can predict the future.

Also, at a certain stage of their careers, Warren Beatty and Michael Cimino were able to make whatever they wanted.
posted by rhizome at 11:28 AM on February 12, 2010


I think your confusion may have to do with the fact that many movies do in fact make money, eventually, even the ones which appear to be flops. Just because the box office is weak doesn't mean that the thing is doomed. Aside from the fact that the movie-consuming population has an amazing appetite for crap, there are three reasons for this as far as I can tell.

First, you're probably underestimating the money these things can bring in once they leave the theater. DVD sales constitute just about as big a market as theater sales do. PPV isn't quite as big, but it isn't chump change either. Same goes for network and cable showings, in-flight movies, and the rest of it. Some estimates--

Second, never underestimate the power of time. Most movies disppear from the box office in a matter of weeks, months at best. But DVD sales and other merchandising tie-ins can go on for years. The studio doesn't have to make it all back in six months. It's a multi-million dollar investment; they've got time.

Third, "commercial success" is perhaps a little underdefined here. Most investors are plenty happy with a 10% annual ROI. Some movies make an absolute shitload of money, e.g. Avatar, but most of them simply turn adequate profits. The number of films which actually wind up costing the studios money in the long run is far smaller than the number that simply turn a modest profit.
posted by valkyryn at 11:35 AM on February 12, 2010


It's really, really hard to make a movie. They're tremendously complex projects with huge numbers of people working on them. And it's almost impossible for any of these individual players to tell how well things are proceeding during the process of making the movie. It's not like at the end of each day, they have a coherent chunk of the total picture. Scenes are shot out-of-order; dailies don't have any post-production effects or editing; one day's work might just be a tiny piece of the movie that's completely incoherent on its own. What you're seeing in the theater is how these many tiny pieces have finally been put together. While the movie is being made, it's difficult or impossible to understand what the final product will look like.

The great directorial geniuses are able to hold most of the moving parts in their heads at the same time and see how things will fit together, but even they aren't always up to the task.
posted by mr_roboto at 11:38 AM on February 12, 2010 [7 favorites]


What Musofire said. Nobody knows. People who insist very loudly that they know are lying through their teeth in order to justify the huge amounts of money they demand.

But that doesn't mean that studios always produce and release anything that comes across their desks because you just can't tell.

Actually, studios do just what you describe all the time. They put far more scripts into development than are ever shot. They pull directors halfway through and try to fix the project. And they quite frequently shelve a completed film because they don't think it's worth the money they'd have to spend on marketing. Often, these films will get dumped into theaters in the off season and left to fend for themselves (David Twohy had to pay for the web site for his haunted submarine movie Below out of his own pocket.) Sometimes they'll sit in the vault for three or four years and then get released because one of the stars gets hot from another movie. Sometimes they're just never heard from again.
posted by Naberius at 11:38 AM on February 12, 2010 [4 favorites]


Between selling distribution rights, merchandising rights, DVD rights, and exploiting German tax loopholes, movies can be profitable for the studio before the film is even released.
posted by indyz at 11:40 AM on February 12, 2010


To finish my orphaned thought up there:

Some estimates suggest that the market for movies outside the theater is at least as big as the market inside, though it takes a lot longer.
posted by valkyryn at 11:41 AM on February 12, 2010


Also, a surprising number of movies are made not because anyone expects to make any money off them, but because they will make someone important happy.

Case in point, Beyond the Sea, Kevin Spacey's Bobby Darin biopic. The audience for that movie was basically Kevin Spacey. (Not saying it's bad - I didn't see it. I'm not Kevin Spacey.) If you're a studio, you spend huge bucks on keeping Kevin Spacey happy so he'll star in your big commercial movie that you hope will make enough to cover what you lost on Beyond the Sea.

Actors and directors with enough clout do stuff like this all the time.
posted by Naberius at 11:45 AM on February 12, 2010


What I am wondering about are big-budget, Hollywood films with multiple stars that end up just falling completely flat...the ones that are truly painful to watch all the way up to just plain mediocre, due to things like bad dialogue, no coherent plot, or even when you can see the actors hearts just aren't in it, with the primary result being near unanimous critical panning and disappointing box office sales.

One thing to keep in mind is that a lot of the focus in the modern film industry is on the opening weekend, because big-budget films come out every week and it's very difficult for anything but the biggest blockbusters to maintain decent sales over a long period of time. So a lot of effort goes into getting people to see the film before word of mouth that the film is actually good has any chance to increase sales. Spending a lot of money on ads, making a really great trailer, casting big name actors, and doing sequels or remakes of established franchises are all things that can get enough people into the theaters on opening weekend to turn a profit, regardless of whether or not the film is actually any good. Obviously there would still be bad films without this effect, but it does help explain why a mediocre Popular Action Film 3 gets made instead of a completely new film with a better script.
posted by burnmp3s at 11:45 AM on February 12, 2010


Why do stars sign up for bad films, can't they tell the script sucks?

Money.
Money.
Convenient scheduling — can't shoot two movies at once.
Good location = free vacation.
Always wanted to work with whoever.
Not bothering to read the script, just the summary.
Assurance that "we'll work on the script".
posted by smackfu at 11:47 AM on February 12, 2010


Movie financing isn't what you seem to think it is. Up to just a couple of years ago there were tax loopholes in Germany and the UK which could be used to recoup a large percentage of the financing for a film.

Read this article from 2005. The bottom line was that during the golden years of tax loopholes it was possible for a studio to break even on a big-budget film before it even hit the theaters. Everything they took in after that was gravy.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 11:47 AM on February 12, 2010


the foreground: Why do stars sign up for bad films, can't they tell the script sucks?

Actors (typically big stars, if it's a big property) are often signed to a movie before the script is written, or it's subsequently rewritten. Some actors aren't picky about their roles, either for the money or just the ability to work with someone specific (or work at all).

Sometimes, if a studio knows a production is in trouble, they'll throw an actor/director/writer at it as part of a contractual obligation to another picture- "you do this sappy treacle, and we'll fund your art flick".

Also, leaving a production because you don't think it's up to par creatively is an easy way to earn a diva rep.
posted by mkultra at 11:49 AM on February 12, 2010


Agreeing with the others that you can't predict how much money a bad movie will make. For example:

Paul Blart: Mall Cop
Budget - $25 million
USA Gross - $146 million

Tomato Meter: 34%
posted by puritycontrol at 11:49 AM on February 12, 2010


Two things:

1. The sunk cost fallacy/dilemma.

2. Movie financing is a black art that mere mortals cannot hope to comprehend. You see "the movie cost $100 million to make, but only made $20 million in theatres" and think it's a huge loss. Besides the long term DVD/foreign screenings market, there's crazy financing tricks before shooting even starts that make a movie profitable before a star sets foot on a set. Edward Jay Epstein is a reporter who wrote on espionage until he got hooked on untangling Hollywood financing, and has written quite a few interesting articles on it. Here's his archive. Here's a detailed article on all the ways that movies make money.

There's also the fact that those crazy financials are used to hide profits to prevent paying those involved based on percentages. Peter Jackson had to sue New Line Cinema to get paid for Lord of the Rings because, incredibly, they claimed that the trilogy lost money. The Tolkien estate also had to sue to get paid.

Short version: you're not seeing even a tenth of the money involved in movie making when you see "cost to make" vs. "box office returns". A movie is a massive financial deal, and virtually never loses money.
posted by fatbird at 11:55 AM on February 12, 2010 [5 favorites]


Once financing has been lined up for a particular film, you'd have to be an idiot not to make it. There can be massive financial consequences for not completing and delivering a film that has been paid for. It doesn't have to be "good" it just has to fulfill contractual requirements.
posted by paperzach at 11:56 AM on February 12, 2010


mr_roboto has it. I'll just add that a lot of it has to do with machinations that have nothing to do with anyone focusing on "success". A powerful director or actor may be owed a movie, contractually - and the studio doesn't have anything else to give him, so they go along with what the director throws at them, and what he throws at them is some shabby project cooked up by his clueless/deluded (but ambitious) girlfriend (I'm citing this based on a specific instance I personally witnessed). Or the project was actually not bad when greenlit, but halfway through production tragedy struck - it can be anything... a key actor getting sick, key locations is suddenly unavailable, key props go up in smoke etc., etc., etc., or a powerful actor on the project suddenly goes insane with a power trip and usurps decision making from the director, with catastrophic results (I've seen this too). Basically, as mr_roboto says, it's really hard to even get an agreement to make studio movie, and then there is a million ways in which things can go terribly wrong. And it's not like the people involved don't understand what's happening - but like folks trapped on a sinking submarine, they can only observe helplessly - it's not like they have a choice... to do otherwise is to invite lawsuits, or damage one's career permanently - it's easier to just go along.
posted by VikingSword at 12:01 PM on February 12, 2010


Also, some films screen really well in previews, but then fail with critics and/or the box office. Case in point (as rhizome alluded to): Ishtar.
posted by ocherdraco at 12:16 PM on February 12, 2010


Because it's a business, and a lot of bad films make a profit.
posted by roger ackroyd at 12:21 PM on February 12, 2010


And don't forget that, as has been pointed out on mefi before, Ishtar actually did make money in the end, even though it's considered to be the canonical flop.
posted by ocherdraco at 12:21 PM on February 12, 2010


Here are some interesting numbers on movie budgets, including the most profitable films and biggest money losers.
posted by ocherdraco at 12:28 PM on February 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


As an illustration of the inscrutable accounting, I suppose. I noticed this in the "biggest losers" table from the link above:

The Boondock Saints - $7,000,000 [budget] $250,000 [worldwide gross] -98.21% [margin]

Yet, there is this.

If this movie had truly lost 98% of its cost, it's hard to imagine anyone would be interested in making a sequel.
posted by chazlarson at 12:41 PM on February 12, 2010


Back to the Boondocks, Defiantly:
Bruce Nash of Nash Information Services said total domestic video sales have been around $50 million.
And that sequel is a good example: nothing about it matters quality-wise. It just needs that title to sell a few million in DVDs.
posted by smackfu at 12:46 PM on February 12, 2010


I saw Bruce Campbell do a Q&A before a showing of Bubba Ho-Tep many years ago. Someone asked about knowing when a movie would do well. His example was a movie he was in, written by Michael Crichton, best selling author, a large number of hit movies based his books, and directed by Frank Marshall, Steven Spielberg's long time producer. It was Congo.

You never know. And Bubba Ho-Tep was a pretty darn good Elvis-Black JFK-Cowboy mummy movie.
posted by beowulf573 at 1:46 PM on February 12, 2010


Having been marginally involved in the production of a low-end piece of shit myself, I think another factor is that even though lots, maybe even most, of the hundreds of people you see in the end credits realize early on that the project is complete garbage, they also realize that it's complete garbage they're getting paid to work on - and depending on the personalities involved at the top, pointing out that fact or trying to contribute constructive criticism can get you fired/on somebody's enemies list, potentially making it hard to get work in the business down the road.

So, I think in many cases nobody from the A.D. on down to the lowly production assistants wants to rock the boat.
posted by usonian at 1:50 PM on February 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


If this movie had truly lost 98% of its cost, it's hard to imagine anyone would be interested in making a sequel.

Nobody was, for many years. The sequel is only happening because Duffy eventually managed to use the size of the online fan base to convince someone that it would have a built-in audience.

I mean we're talking hundreds and hundreds of people working on this thing, and it goes through so many different stages, from the script to casting to pre and post production, market testing etc...why does no one ever say, "um, this clearly isn't working, let's rethink this?"


Of those hundreds of people, very few of them are in a position to say that without getting fired.

In the thread above, much is made of the "nobody knows" meme, and there is certainly some truth to it. But that's also being way too kind to the people who ruin the movies. Sometimes the script starts out great, and is ruined. Sometimes, yes, the people making it think it's good. Sometimes the whole thing is a cynically produced product that is thought by a literal-minded idiot to be based on a sure formula for success.

William Goldman's book Adventures In The Screenwriting Trade gives a lot of candid and specific examples of how movies get ruined by well-intended (and ill-intended) people.
posted by bingo at 1:58 PM on February 12, 2010


usonian, your link leads back to this ask page, which makes me wonder if you are saying that this question, or AskMeTa in general is a low-end piece of shit. If that's the case, then haven't we all been involved in a low-end piece of shit?
posted by Think_Long at 1:58 PM on February 12, 2010


Why do stars sign up for bad films, can't they tell the script sucks?

Sometimes they can't. Sometimes an actor who's usually got a great eye for what's good and what isn't could be caught up in personal troubles and be too distracted, and make a poor choice.

Or, sometimes they know the script sucks, but they agree to do it for precisely that reason.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 2:01 PM on February 12, 2010


If you're really interested, try reading The Devil's Candy, which is a behind-the-scenes book about the famous flop Bonfire of the Vanities.

But look, here's the thing. Making a movie is just like doing anything else. There's as much self-interest and self-deception on a movie set as there is anywhere else in the world. And why shouldn't actors take parts in bad movies?
posted by Bookhouse at 2:02 PM on February 12, 2010




usonian, your link leads back to this ask page, which makes me wonder if you are saying that this question, or AskMeTa in general is a low-end piece of shit. If that's the case, then haven't we all been involved in a low-end piece of shit?
Nothing could be further from the truth! Just link fail on my part. Chalk it up to my subconscious trying to prevent me from admitting to having worked on Turbo: A Power Rangers Movie.
posted by usonian at 2:19 PM on February 12, 2010 [3 favorites]


I love Michael Caine. His working philosophy appears to be, since you never know what's going to be great and what's going to be awful, do everything they offer you. You get paid more that way, and people tend to remember the great stuff more than the flops.
posted by Naberius at 2:20 PM on February 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


There's another thing.

If you are working on something creative, you change it all the time. By the time it's done, you can no longer really see it--you see the mass of modifications you made during its production, and all the inferior things you fixed up along the way. So the final product the audience sees is nothing like the final product the creators see, even though they are in some sense identical.
posted by hexatron at 2:38 PM on February 12, 2010


bingo: If this movie had truly lost 98% of its cost, it's hard to imagine anyone would be interested in making a sequel.

Nobody was, for many years. The sequel is only happening because Duffy eventually managed to use the size of the online fan base to convince someone that it would have a built-in audience.


Popular theory in my house is that he's got compromising pictures. Makes way more sense.
posted by mkultra at 2:49 PM on February 12, 2010


And never underestimate the rank idiocy of people at the top of the food chain. We've all been subject to the crackpot whims of the CEO. Movies are just the same, except that it's movies that get pooped out the other end, and not whatever product your own employer makes.

I am reminded of Kevin Smith's story of his Superman script, and reading a script to someone who kept trying to insert a giant mechanical spider into the works, in An Evening with Kevin Smith. (The relevant clip is on YouTube.)
posted by ErikaB at 5:45 PM on February 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


To follow on from the "No one knows anything" quote mentioned above, here's an excerpt from a more recent interview with William Goldman:

[Goldman] seems to spend a great deal of his time trying to figure out why one film works and another doesn't, and does not always come up with an answer. Author of the famous line "nobody knows anything", which appears in his brilliant 1983 memoir Adventures In The Screen Trade, Goldman asserts that what he said then about the serendipity of the industry is equally valid today.

No one has the least idea what is going to work," he observes. "The minute people start acting like they know everything, we're all in trouble. Nobody thought Taken would do $100m. Nobody thought Liam Neeson would make it as an action star at this stage in his career. I heard a story that Slumdog Millionaire was going to go directly to DVD. I would have loved to have been in the room when that decision was made."
posted by hot soup girl at 7:26 PM on February 12, 2010


There's a telling scene in the behind-the-scenes 'making of' footage for Star Wars Episode I. George Lucas and co watch the movie for the first time. The look of horror as they realise they've made an overly-convoluted piece of crap is priceless. But the movie is over - it's made, and they can't change it. You can see bits of it here from 1:20.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 12:49 AM on February 13, 2010


Popular theory in my house is that he's got compromising pictures. Makes way more sense.

I know quite a few people who really like Boondock Saints. Some people enjoy it as a crass indulgence, some just like the guns and smut. I certainly loved it - when I was 14. And these days it does seem to have a following.
posted by schmichael at 5:48 AM on November 2, 2010


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