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Hollywood is Not a Fortune Cookie Factory


“Aphorisms or vague prophecies...?”

Wonders Everybody

Movies get a bad rap. Sometimes because they’re so bad that they truly deserve it, and other times because people misunderstand what movies actually are.

As I mention in my book ADDICTED IN FILM, movies are just a consumer product that entail extremely high development, production, and marketing costs which must be recouped across large multinational distribution channels. These channels place a premium on uniformity, mass customer satisfaction, and repeat business in the form of endless sequels. 

But a lot of people, especially older people and so-called “intellectuals,” think Hollywood owes the world movies that are more meaningful, sophisticated and inspirational than those featuring a bunch of overpaid actors and actresses flying around in capes.

But they don’t. Hollywood doesn’t owe anybody anything. The only explanation Universal owes anyone is to its shareholders.

Year in and year out I would have the same argument with my dad's tennis buddies whenever I visited my parents’ Florida retirement community.  After a blistering forehand, Jack Whatever-His-Name-Was, a cynical retired airline captain, would ask me, “What’s the deal with your pals in La La Land, Ted? Hollywood hasn’t been able to make a decent f-’in movie worth watching for years.”

I would smile politely and counter, “Gee, Jack, I’m so very sorry you feel that way. May I ask, what was the last movie you saw that you liked?

Any film with Spencer Tracy,” he would blurt out confidently, as if proclaiming it from Mt. Olympus.

I rest my case...

What a lot of people like Jack don’t get is that mainstream studio films are designed to do two simple things: make money and be entertaining. A lot of really dedicated people work long hours and get paid depressingly large sums of money to make sure that happens. Movies are not designed to be “intellectually stimulating,” whatever that even means anymore. Which is not to say that big budget studio films can’t be that. Many are. Some films go that extra yard and actually make us think. A lot.

The Wachowski’s MATRIX Trilogy, for instance, featured dense scientific and philosophical thematic subtexts like the existence (or not) of free will, solipsism, and the real possibility of Deep A.I. 
Christopher Nolan’s film INCEPTION made us think about access to our deep subconscious and the metaphysics of true reality. Was the movie just a dream? Are you dreaming right now? Am I dreaming as I write this essay? Are we all trapped in Plato’s Cave? 

And don't get me started on director Darren Aronofsky's movies. They make me think too much. It's exhausting sometimes, but exhilaratingly so. I discuss several in the book.

Most filmmakers don’t set out to make movies with the express intention of making us think too much. The Fast & Furious franchise seems to want to do the opposite. And that's because when filmmakers do try really hard to make us think too much, it sometimes comes off as preachy or pretentious. It's a bit of the old "damned if you do, damned if you don't" in play here. Besides, there’s an easier way to make people think a lot with movies. It’s called making documentaries.

I used to give screenwriting seminars in universities around the world, and most of my students wanted to write films that would make their audience think about poverty, social injustice, and corruption. You can’t blame them; in many countries I visited, they lived those realities every day. But those types of films had zero chance of ever getting financed. They weren’t entertaining. They were rather depressing. Most people don't pay good money to schlep to a movie theater and be depressed. They can get that by turning on the TV and watching the evening news for free. 

In the book, I talk about the fortune cookie analogy. It goes like this: Most people don’t even like the cookie part of the fortune cookie. They go straight to the fortune inside. But imagine the reverse: the cookie is delicious, and you sometimes bother to read the fortune as an afterthought.

And so I would teach my students this: Give your audience the delicious cookie part. Start there. That’s what they're paying for. Save your deep social commentary for the fortune part. If your audiences find it, that’s a bonus. In other words, don't try to force your message across; let the audience discover it for themselves. That way it will have more impact.

The fortune cookie effect is part of the reason that films about addiction and recovery are few and far between. It's hard to make a fortune cookie about this subject seem delicious and appealing on the surface. And if people can't get past the surface, they won't discover all the great fortune-telling that's inside.  Film marketing can only achieve so much.

As excerpted from the book:

"You can’t blame Hollywood (for the lack of films about addiction and recovery). These types of films face a lot of challenges. First off, casting. The easiest way to get a film green-lit by the studios is to have A-List talent attached. But there are very few A-List actors or actresses willing to take a risk playing a character who has an addiction problem. It tarnishes their “brand”—especially if they ever hope to work on another Disney movie or present at the Nickelodeon Awards ever again.

There are exceptions of course, like when Bradley Cooper played opposite Lady Gaga in A STAR IS BORN, or when Denzel Washington starred in FLIGHT. Some actors and actresses took the risk and came out winning big, like Nicolas Cage when he won the 1995 Academy Award for Best Actor in LEAVING LAS VEGAS, or Angelina Jolie who went from little known actress to A-List megastar after her phenomenal performance in GIA (all four of these films are discussed in the book). 

Another challenge is the marketing of the film, which in today’s Hollywood is usually more important than the film itself. One of my early mentors at Universal Studios once told me, “There is no such thing as a bad movie. Just bad marketing.” Not to get too cynical here—because we have Rotten Tomatoes for that—but a $50 million dollar worldwide marketing budget even made WATERWORLD worth watching. I should know, I was involved in approving the budget. 

And when it comes to effectively marketing a film about drug and alcohol addiction, no amount of marketing dollars can overcome the fact that, at the end of the day, the movie’s about... well... drug and alcohol addiction..."

For these reasons and more that are too extensive to go into here, the Hollywood studio establishment considers films about addiction and recovery financial risks. Because, sadly, they are. None of the films discussed in the book cracked the $200 million worldwide box-office threshold most studio bean-counters consider the bare minimum a film should earn to make them worth even talking about.

But this is changing.

Thanks to the proliferation of streaming platforms and the growth of local film industries around the world, there are more distribution channels than ever before. The Hollywood Studios aren't the only game in town anymore. I believe that more and more producers around the world will come to believe (as I do) that films about addiction and recovery don't always have to be Debbie-Downers.  As many of the films I write about in the book demonstrate, thoughtful storytelling about these subjects can be entertaining, enlightening and profitable.

So remember, don't always judge a fortune cookie by the cookie part. Deep wisdom may await you once you get past the idle confections.


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