The Cultural Gutter

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Avatar SCHMAvatar, or, Change the Playa Not the Game

John Crye
Posted April 8, 2010

crye's piece 80.jpgThe film industry is a magical business. I don’t mean magical in the “Hollywood movie magic” sense, as is typically employed by awards show musical numbers and the California Board of Tourism. I mean that it is an industry with a business model that is not, and by its very nature cannot, be constructed on the bedrock of statistically predicted effects and their verifiable causes. In fact, there are more gaps in the film industry’s chain of cause and effect than there are links. Those gaps are bridged by magic, that versatile stuff that is one part fact, one part assumption, and one part aspiration. Historically, magic has also gone by the names “faith” and “bullshit”.

The film industry’s business model relies on magic by its very nature because, despite the fact that filmed entertainment is a product that can be created at a relatively predictable rate and expense, there is no accurate way of predicting the actual commercial value of any single film. For instance: “If spectacular fantasies based on popular Young Adult fiction series are profitable, and Brendan Fraser starred in one of the most profitable fantasy film series ever, then logic dictates that Inkheart should have been a smashing success.”

Now take a little jog over to Boxofficemojo.com and see how well that logic held up. The fault here is that this logic assumes that all Young Adult fantasy fiction is of an equivalent value, as are all Brendan Fraser performances. The assumption is also spurious, of course, because of the multitude of factors not taken into account, ranging from the obvious, such as the talent of the hundreds of other artists and technicians working on the film, to the obscure, such as the ability of the foreign sales agent to muster up an enthusiastic pitch for the film when it’s 4am at the Hotel du Cap and the Cannes Film Festival has kept him awake and partying for three days straight.

While “Hollywood” may appear to machine stamp its widget-like films with dazzling predictability, that is the real show in show business: the smoke and mirrors employed to make a chaotic collection of disparate entities look like an industry. On any given day, the success or failure of the film industry’s product is determined by an impossible number factors, and every single day those factors change.

Which brings me to the point of today’s screed, the thorn that is currently in my side, the mattress-pea du jour: the ubiquitous term, “game changer”. If I had written this article last month, I might have been pissing and moaning about “cross-platform intellectual properties”. Last week, it would have been “transmedia I.P.” which is the exact same thing as “cross-platform intellectual properties”, but less tired and more wired (according to a magazine whose name I forget). But since the coming of Avatar, entertainment has turned its avid eyes to the new salvation: the “game changer”, the singular event that begets a change in the gestalt, the zeitgeist, and several other ideas that can only be expressed in German.

crye's piece 250.jpgI have no issue with actual “game changers” themselves. I like the concept, generally speaking. I’d have no problem with one of Clark’s black monoliths hitting fast forward on evolution. Me and the bone-tossin’ monkeydudes are down with that. But just as that black monolith’s existence would suggest a higher intelligence and perhaps even a purpose to our own existence, the concept of a “game changer” insists that there is a game to change. What if there is no game? What if there is a game, but its only object is convincing others that it exists? If such a game were to change, would it still be a game at all? Would it still be at all? Now you see the problems inherent in applying that buzzy term to the film industry. Now you see the problems inherent in the “game changer” called Avatar.

Now you know why James Cameron must be stopped.

Avatar opened to an estimated umpteenjillion dollars (USD) at the box office, as well as umpteenjillion-and-eleven reviews and articles declaring it a “game
changer”. Go ahead and google “Avatar game changer.” I’ll wait. All across the movie demimonde the cry went up that “this changes everything.” My favorite gush comes from Tim Robey of the Telegraph UK, who declared in a breathless yet condescendingly nonchalant / nonchalantly condescending (read: British)way:

The 3-D movie Avatar is the game-changer insiders have been waiting for… a gob-smacking sensory wow, setting an immediate new benchmark for the blockbuster.  Cameron’s aim with this long-in-gestation sci-fi epic is to show off what digital 3D can do. And anyone with half an interest in what the future of film might look like is going to want to see it.

Now, I–along with every other smarty-pants wonk in my business–have been saying that 3-D was the next big thing for the past three or four years, primarily because in provides a fun new challenge for pirates, but also because we’re running out of ‘70’s TV to remake and are dangerously close to having to return to faggoty art crap like telling stories and showcasing actual acting. 3-D staves that off for a bit longer. (whew!)

My point is, 3-D isn’t the game-changer in Avatar because Avatar did not bring about that change. Much has been made of the number of 3-D capable screens that opened to accommodate Avatar, but theaters had been headed that direction long before the Giovanni Ribisi took the Paul Reiser role. I can honestly tell Tim Robey of the Telegraph UK that I do have “half an interest in what the future of film might look like”, and I can also honestly tell him that it will look very little like Avatar.

There will be more and more 3-D–likely more than anyone actually wants–but none of it will look like Avatar. You can only make so many $237 million films. By “you”, I mean the human race as a whole. There’s only so much money, folks.

There are other ways to change the game, of course. While not every movie can or will be in 3-D, or have such a massive budget, Avatar’s impressive qualities transcend the practical. To wit, when SciFiWire.com made their use of the term “game changer” in reference to Avatar, they blamed it on the fans, claiming that members of the audience that screened the Avatar promo footage at Comicon ’09 declared that “Avatar will be as game-changing as Star Wars”. My heartfelt rejoinder to that thesis: “Fuck you”.

Of all the puffery and hyperbole engendered by Avatar in the press, the most honest assessment came in an article by John Horn and Claudia Eller of The LA Times who posited in their article about the blue Unobtanium-hoarding bastards: “The film business, struggling with flat theater attendance, collapsing DVD sales and the serial firing of top executives, certainly could use a game changer.”

Yep, the film business really could.  That’s probably the reason for all the aspirational hoo-rah about Cameron’s film in particular and 3-D in general. Theater attendance has been relatively flat. DVD sales–or at least the price points–have been collapsing. And top executives have been serially fired. But those are not symptoms indicating the need for change, they are symptoms of change itself. Because the industry is changing, always has been changing, and needs to keep changing. And that’s why all the happy horseshit about Avatar as a “game changer” chews at my skull. Because you can’t change the game when the game is change.

~~~

Each month the Gutter features a guest writer. This month’s Guest Star is John Crye, a 15 year veteran of the film industry and a filmmaker who makes nightmares with the Fewdio horror collective. (And, no, you can’t have his Unobtanium, that’s why it’s called, “Unobtanium”).

Comments

2 Responses to “Avatar SCHMAvatar, or, Change the Playa Not the Game”

  1. Carol Borden
    April 10th, 2010 @ 12:47 pm

    ha, love the bit about all brendan fraser performances not being equal.

  2. Nefarious Dr O
    April 10th, 2010 @ 8:13 pm

    I couldn’t agree more! I got so tired of hearing the hyperbole about that movie that I ended up not seeing it as a form or protest. I think my $ are the only vote I have left, so I might as well try to use it.

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