Board game-based movies reveal business side of art

William Witwer

Credit: Olivia Johnson

Remember that staple of childhood, the Magic 8-Ball whence all decisions flowed? Well, they’re making a movie. Not a documentary — (What the hell would that entail?) — but a full-blown movie movie, rumored to come out summer 2012. I think the only valid response to this troubling news is, “Wait. What?”

That’s right folks, “Magic 8-Ball” could be the family movie event of 2012. (This must be the end of the world those pesky Mayans accidentally prophesied by not finishing their calendar.) Speaking of movies adapted from board games, also on the way is the Monopoly movie, as well as Battleship and a Ouija Board movie in development.

What about last summer, when Chrisopher Nolan’s brainchild “Inception” dominated box offices enough to become the second-highest grossing movie of all time? Doesn’t that mean audiences are hungry for new content? Shouldn’t studios try to follow a new path, one devoid of board game adaptations or 5th sequels? Actually, no.

“I think that there’s two ways to evaluate films : you can evaluate them as art or you can evaluate them as product,” said Professor of Rhetoric and Film Studies  Robert Sickels. “Every once in a while those two things align, but most of the people involved in the business of marketing movies and paying for movies (which is different than making movies!) could care less whether a film is art or not. Nobody who’s responsible for financing ‘Transformers 2’ cares that it was one of the worst-reviewed movies in the history of Hollywood.”

Indeed they do not. Both movies were highly lucrative, not just in terms of the movies themselves, but also in terms of merchandising. Transformers was originally born from merchandise itself; before the movies was the popular TV show, which in turn was adapted from a line of toys. Studio executives must be extremely conservative with their money, because the cost of making movies and promoting them has risen to the point that, to green-light a movie, they need a built-in audience. For the same reason, studios love sequels, because if the audience liked the first one, they’ll almost certainly come back for the second one.

“There’s no reason to believe that audiences want to see original material,” said Sickels. “I guess on the one hand you could argue that audiences are hungry for movies and see what they’re allowed to see, what gets made. That said, the box office is riddled with the casualties of excellent films that got some kind of distribution but that nobody went to see.”

As much as that depresses me (“Fantastic Mr. Fox”  and “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” are two such recent casualties, though both are actually adaptations of written work), it is difficult to argue with the logic of the film studios. If you desperately need a movie to make a profit, taking a chance on new, non-pre-sold content is a big stretch. In the end, what it comes down to is that movies designed only to entertain succeed because they do not aspire to be more than they are.

A GQ article entitled “The Day The Movies Died argues that “for the studios, a good new idea has become just too scary a road to travel. ‘Inception’, they will tell you, is an exceptional movie. And movies that need to be exceptional to succeed are bad business. ‘The scab you’re picking at is called execution,’ says legendary producer Scott Rudin (‘The Social Network’, ‘True Grit’). ‘Studios are hardwired not to bet on execution, and the terrible thing is, they’re right. Because in terms of execution, most movies disappoint.'”

Now, I don’t know if I would go that far, since even mediocre movies can be a blast to watch. But in terms of profitability, adaptations of board-games, for example, will always be made over “Inception” or “Source Code” (a good, new, original thriller that I reviewed last week). This speaks to the difficulty of crafting narrative and of the art of filmmaking; but if a movie is already pre-sold to the point that an audience is all but guaranteed, it does not matter if said movie disappoints on the level of art.

So stop complaining about Hollywood’s perennial sequelitis and lack of original material : it is an incredibly smart business move, and not one that’s likely to change. And hey, “Magic 8-Ball”  could be good : and I might see it even if it is not. Suck on that, hipsters.