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.