Walt Disney CTO: Movies are about “visual spectacle,” not story

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Walt Disney Animation Studios chief technical officer Andy Hendrickson, describes thinking behind the studio’s film strategy:

“People say ‘It’s all about the story,'” Hendrickson said. “When you’re making tentpole films, bullshit.” Hendrickson showed a chart of the top 12 all-time domestic grossers, and noted every one is a spectacle film. Of his own studio’s “Alice in Wonderland,” which is on the list, he said: “The story isn’t very good, but visual spectacle brought people in droves. And Johnny Depp didn’t hurt.”

This seems obvious, but it’s actually completely backwards. Look at the list of top-12 domestic grossing films:

1 2009 Avatar $760,507,625
2 1997 Titanic $600,788,188
3 2008 The Dark Knight $533,345,358
4 1977 Star Wars Ep. IV: A New Hope $460,998,007
5 2004 Shrek 2 $441,226,247
6 1982 ET: The Extra-Terrestrial $435,110,554
7 1999 Star Wars Ep. I: The Phantom Menace $431,088,297
8 2006 Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest $423,315,812
9 2010 Toy Story 3 $415,004,880
10 2002 Spider-Man $403,706,375
11 2009 Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen $402,111,870
12 2005 Star Wars Ep. III: Revenge of the Sith $380,270,577

Lots of Star Wars, superheroes, and high-concept explosions by James Cameron and Michael Bay.

But while the top 12 grossing films are all visual spectacles, they are also good, exciting stories that engage their audiences. And furthermore, the audiences for these particular spectacles are built-in, given that most of the films on this list are sequels of other films on the list, or are based on a successful property from some other medium (comics, books, toys). In fact, the only exceptions to this are ET and Avatar, and both of those films shattered all box office records upon their release.

The problem with Hendrickson’s logic is that there are many other visually spectacular movies that failed. Most notable for Hendrickson’s studio are Tron: Legacy and all of this year’s comic book films, including Thor, Captain America, and X-Men: First Class. In fact, all four of these films grossed less in the US (and world-wide) than Fast Five which also came out this year, and which is much less of a CGI/special-effects driven film than any of the others.

So how does Fast Five the fifth installment of a film franchise about street racing gross more than films about popular superheroes? Because when Fast Five isn’t tossing cars all over the highway, it tells a good story. A believable story. A story that resonates with the target audience. The stories in those other films weren’t good. They didn’t resonate. They were very much afterthoughts. The stunning visuals in Tron Legacy were conceived by Sid Mead, the same person who did the visuals for Blade Runner. The difference is that Tron Legacy wasn’t directed by Ridley Scott or based on a story by Phillip K. Dick.

The fact is that story does matter, and it might be the only thing that matters. Setting aside for a moment the two more subversive films in the top 12, The Dark Knight and Avatar, all of the films on the top twelve list are very traditional, in the spirit of heroic myths. Ten minutes into all of these movies, and you know who the hero is, who the villain is, what the stakes are. They are not groundbreaking stories. The visual spectacle in these films serves only to widen the dynamic range of drama, to heighten the tension, deepen the tragedy, and to exaggerate the cathartic release. These are very traditional stories, told very well with unsurprising plots, but in visually surprising but necessary ways.

Contrast this with Tron: Legacy or any of the Marvel (and DC) superhero movies. In those films, the story structure is recognizable, but the stories themselves are too small for the scale in which they are being presented. The iconic scene in Tron, a movie about being inside a computer simulation where the laws of physics don’t apply, is a motorcycle race. Why a motorcycle race? It isn’t explained. (We are supposed to recall it from the first film released two decades earlier, which was also a flop.) Compare this with the iconic scene in Inception, another movie about simulated dream reality released three months before Tron: Legacy. In that film, the iconic and visually spectacular scene is a fistfight in a zero-gravity spinning hallway whose zero-gravity spinning was a direct consequence of the plot.

For studios, the emphasis should not be on the visually spectacular, but on spectacle in service of story. The emphasis from the concept phase should be a story so vast, so dramatic, so important to the characters that is needs spectacle to be told properly. Explosions and lasers in film are like nudity, it’s acceptable only when it’s critical to the plot. Otherwise, it’s pornography.

And I’m not suggesting these spectacles be elevated to the level of art. They can be the cinematic equivalent of junk food. But it has to be good junk food. Yummy. Three Muskteers junk food. Big Mac junk food. Not Pecan Sandies or Mary Jane’s junk food. No one thinks Pecan Sandies are yummy.

Hendrickson is wrong. You don’t lead with spectacle. You lead with story. It’s not enough to have giant robots, giant blue aliens, giant spaceships, or giant explosions. You need to support them with a story that makes sense, that makes the audience care. Because if you don’t have the story, the audience won’t care about any of it. At all.


See also: My Name is (Not) Michael Bay, and I Just F*cked Your Girlfriend.

Related posts:

  1. The next phase in the evolution of action movies
  2. “Madness has gone dark. The ‘R’ did us in.”
  3. The end of original ideas, until the new one
  4. What does Quentin Tarantino think is the best directed movie of all time?
  5. Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life is one of the greatest films ever made.

18 Responses to Walt Disney CTO: Movies are about “visual spectacle,” not story

  1. Joe says:

    His argument falls apart faster when you adjust the numbers for inflation:

    1 Gone with the Wind $1,610,295,700
    2 Star Wars $1,419,613,200
    3 The Sound of Music $1,135,050,500
    4 E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial $1,130,579,000
    5 The Ten Commandments $1,044,070,000
    6 Titanic $1,022,916,700
    7 Jaws $1,020,788,200
    8 Doctor Zhivago (1965) $989,359,600
    9 The Exorcist $881,232,300
    10 Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs $868,730,000
    11 101 Dalmatians (1961) $796,340,500
    12 The Empire Strikes Back $782,499,700

    I wouldn’t describe most of these movies as “spectacle films.” I found the numbers is here: http://boxofficemojo.com/alltime/adjusted.htm

    • stiffbreeze says:

      I believe the argument would fall apart faster again if you took these inflation adjusted numbers and also adjusted them for either total U.S. population or total U.S. population in the core movie-going demographic. (This would still present measurement challenges, as one could perhaps argue there are more big screen options today then decades past.)

      Were you to somehow further adjust the above adjusted numbers in this manner, I believe you may observe that the story used to matter more than it does today. Or perhaps it would simply be an effect of fewer movie options in the past. Gone with the Wind, The Sound of Music and The Ten Commandments would be the top 3 films adjusted for population.

  2. AlexWolfe says:

    I’m not sure about Transormers or Pirates as I haven’t seen their sequels, but Star Wars episode 1 is a master class in everything a storyteller shouldn’t do. It’s one of the worst-plotted movies of all time, COMPLETELY devoid of the Campbell framework you say all the movies in the top 12 have.

    I agree with your argument, that storytelling is extremely important, but I don’t think there’s enough data to back up your conclusion. The problem with your logic is that there are many examples of extremely well-plotted movies that failed. 80% of the movies in your top 12 are well-plotted, 100% are visual spectacles, or at least were when they came out. So how can you jump to the conclusion that storytelling is the most important factor in selling a movie? Going off the data, it seems like having both, together, is what’s crucial.

    Do you know, for example, if visually spectacular movies generally sell better than movies that focus on plot? I have no idea, but given the data you’re basing your conclusion on, that could certainly be true.

    • rapscallione says:

      There are many wonderfully plotted movies with terrible effects, and many wonderfully-effected movies with terrible plots. Comparing effects vs. plot in terms of pure moneymaking is possible in a vacuum, but not in a world full of advertising.

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  4. ThomasR says:

    I agree that story is very important. And it is the rare movie that can omit it completely (Transformers etc.), but story alone will not make a blockbuster. As you say, many of these are traditional plots. Good vs. Evil. But that sort of plays more into Hendrickson’s point than yours. Also, even of the movies that I consider to be more plot-based, most (all?) are also spectacular in a groundbreaking sort of way.

    Story more important:
    2 1997 Titanic $600,788,188
    3 2008 The Dark Knight $533,345,358
    9 2010 Toy Story 3 $415,004,880
    6 1982 ET: The Extra-Terrestrial $435,110,554

    Spectacle more important:
    1 2009 Avatar $760,507,625 (decent if basic plot, but people watched it for the effects)
    4 1977 Star Wars Ep. IV: A New Hope $460,998,007 (This one could go either way, it has a great plot)
    5 2004 Shrek 2 $441,226,247
    7 1999 Star Wars Ep. I: The Phantom Menace $431,088,297
    8 2006 Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest $423,315,812
    10 2002 Spider-Man $403,706,375
    11 2009 Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen $402,111,870
    12 2005 Star Wars Ep. III: Revenge of the Sith $380,270,577

  5. Rocket Surgeon says:

    There either was a mistake in his speech or the article. He references Alice in Wonderland as being in the top 12 but that didn’t happen in domestic sales, but the film does show up as a top earner in worldwide sales.

    We probably should adjust for inflation but I think to it would make more sense if we only looked at movies from the past fifteen to twenty years or so. Perhaps since the time of Waterworld or Jurassic Park when it became an acceptable practice to spends shitloads of money specifically on two things: effects and marketing.

    Last, a nagging point of contention. Avatar isn’t just a piece of shit, it’s a bunch of shit mashed together and painted blue. Cameron admitted writing the first draft of the story the same year Dances with Wolves floated through Hollywood. Coincidence? Let’s skip that, and the fact he lifted large portions of the plot from an old sci-fi book though. BUT “it’s subversive because the good guys win!” you say, and I say it’s a fictional retelling of a self-serving historical narrative to allow the “good guys” to win. Not to mention I believe I’ve seen two animated films that came out before Avatar with the exact same plot and ending. You could make a long sundry list of specific things he outright stole to put that film together. I mean if you’re sitting in a theatre and recognize exact scenes from other films, except they’re CGIed blue people/cats (Baraka anyone?) then somethings wrong with the writing. That film is all spectacle with a framework of overused storytelling.

  6. Rocket Surgeon says:

    Here’s the correct chart he was speaking about for worldwide all time gross sales

    1 Avatar (2009) $2,782.3
    2 Titanic (1997) $1,843.2
    3 Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (2011) $1,217.4
    4 The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) $1,119.1
    5 Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011) $1,082.1
    6 Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006) $1,066.2
    7 Toy Story 3 (2010) $1,063.2
    8 Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011) $1,038.2
    9 Alice in Wonderland (2010) $1,024.3
    10 The Dark Knight (2008) $1,001.9
    11 Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001) $974.8
    12 Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007) $963.4

    I would say at least a quarter of those rely on spectacle and not story, but that still doesn’t prove his point.
    Looking at that, I’d say if Hollywood really wants a short one liner about large scale hit movies it would go something like “Take easily digestible worldly (not specifically American) story, include lots of effects, and make sure to market the shit out of it far in advance of release.”

  7. wanderinggambler says:

    I’d say you’re pretty crazy if you honestly think Fast Five was a better film or a better story than X-Men First Class.

    • wanderinggambler says:

      The real reason why Fast Five made more money is because it’s the fifth installment of a popular film franchise. The fourth film did well with critics and made a good chunk of change. It didn’t hurt that the Rock v. Vin Diesel fight stuff existed too.

      Furthermore, a lot of box office is determinable by when a film is released and its competition. Fast Five was released in the last week of April against nothing. Thor was released the next week and immediately hit competition. Box office competition was also pretty high with Cap and X-Men too.

      • wanderinggambler says:

        As for the original point of this blog, the Disney studio head is kinda right. Avatar is nothing more than a shoddy version of A Princess of Mars with great special effects. No one actually cared about the story, they just loved the world Cameron built.

        • rapscallione says:

          A world that tied into and directly affected the story.

          I’m not sure why people are arguing that Avatar made all that money based purely on spectacle. If that was the case, Transformers 3 would be in the number 2 slot. But it isn’t.

          Was the story of Avatar original? No. Was it entertaining and captivating? Well, shit yeah, that’s why the movie did so well.

  8. BluegrassJack says:

    “When you’re making tentpole films, bullshit.”

    Walt Disney would not be impressed when one of his suits talked to the press like that.

  9. thestage says:

    you can’t even define story, much less tell us why it is important. it’s a mythological word, both literally and figuratively. and any anything that has “the story” and then “the other stuff” and separates them and values one over the other or pretends that you lead with this or that is probably not something worth seeing/reading/whatever

  10. wishswudhavwings says:

    First, I think Hendrickson is confusing what people talk about AFTER a movie with what draws people in DURING a movie. Sure, after Inception/Avatar/Transformers people talked about how cool the 3D was or how awesome that spinning hallway sequence was, but the fact is that those spectacular visual moments are tied into the emotional highs and lows provided by the story. The emotional peak (positive or negative) that a viewer experiences allows them to more clearly remember the spectacle, but without a good story and characters, they would never have that connection to begin with.

    Second, he’s ignoring the effect that the original movies have on their sequels (Shrek, Star Wars), name brand recognition (Toy Story 3), uncontrollable outside factors (The Dark Knight) and Alice benefited from being the first post-Avatar 3D movie, before post-conversion made audiences bitter.

    • Euan says:

      Those effects you mention add to his point that story is not the main factor in making a successful blockbuster movie.

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  12. Euan says:

    Show me a movie that is purely about the story, not at all about groundbreaking effects or visuals, that is better than any one of those highest grossing films (subjective, I know, but we all think it) and I’ll be as surprised when I was when the sun came up again this morning.

    But all these highest grossing films gain a lot from visuals and other outside factors like brand or the fact that they’re sequels or even just their timing. There a countless films with much better stories, but they’re not rolling in the same kind of cash. The point he’s making is, that story isn’t the determining factor. Based on the list I’d say he has a point.