Make It So: A Skunkworks For Films

Last “Make It So” we had a roundup of how the MuseHack gang would try and change how theaters would run and how movies worked: a return to serials, more events, theaters as destinations, and heavy social engagement. It would mean less theaters in some cases, but more connected ones less dependent on tentpoles.

However there’s a flipside to this that Serdar and I had been discussing that’s our next make it so. We’re still trying to save the movie industry here at MuseHack, but in this case we’re focusing on the way films are made. Which, as you may guess, kind of sucks.

Several things are painfully obvious right now:

  • Blockbusters are big tentpoles that the studios and theaters are dependent on.
  • These blockbusters are becoming massively formulaic ala “Save The Cat.”
  • These blockbusters are failing and Hollywood is showing signs of weakness and facing criticism.
  • Hollywood kind of seems to be merrily chugging along, though some studios are delaying things.
  • A lot of this money could go to more original, less contrived films.

The problem is that risk-phobic Hollywood is relying on big films that will be ultra-safe, even to the point where the goal is to clean up in the foreign market. There’s no chance-taking, which means no innovation, and that when things fall apart there’s no solutions. When you don’t take risks, then you can’t risk solving the problem.

But risk is a matter of viewpoint. Sometimes when your viewpoint is a big “all or nothing” then you miss the fact maybe that big “all or nothing” is the problem.

Enter, the Skunkworks concept Serdar originated and that I gladly glommed on to.

The idea behind the Skunkworks is simple:

  • Studios need more, cheaper films to avoid putting all their eggs in one big, market-tested, shallow basket.
  • There is a lot of talent out there that needs to be cultivated and will respond.
  • Studios could thus invest in more, smaller films as a kind of Skunkworks or incubator. Say instead of a $200 million dollar film do 10 $20 million dollar ones.
  • If these are well-made films, then the chance to break even is pretty good, failures don’t cost as much money, and there’s a chance to find the next gem or franchise.

So the basic idea – hand money to people with a vision, just a lot less money, and let them go nuts. Then reap the rewards, spread the risk, and probably get more bang for your buck. Besides, the foreign market will always be there to save your studio’s backside anyway.

Somewhere out there is another “Clerks,” “Terminator,” “Donnie Darko” or “Primer.” Somewhere out there is the long-burn cult hit or big franchise launcher, and it’s brethren are going to be fun B-movies and exceptional if moderately popular films. There’s also less risk than blowing it all on the eventual decline in blockbusters.

I also see several advantages to the Skunkworks:

  • Publicity. A Skunkworks approach would probably get media attention – and the attention of talent. Free publicity==good.
  • A chance to experiment with film types. The idea we mentioned about doing serials? That could be done as part of the Skunkworks. Or do interlinked films. Or . . . well you get the idea. You’re only going to loose so much on someone’s insane vision.
  • Training. You don’t have big names involved in these necessarily, so you create a new generation of filmmakers. There’s a lot of talent to be cultivated, and I don’t think YouTube, The Asylum, or Kickstarter are the only way to do it.
  • Adaptions. Now I’m no fan of endless adaptions, but imagine some of the things out there that could be good adaptions not getting done. Or ones that have been lousy. There might be something brewing out there that would be appropriate. (I rather enjoyed “Emma,” much to my surprise.)
  • Taking chances on genres. When’s the last time you saw a good solid western? Or one of those witty/sharp murder mysteries of old?
  • Pacing and timing. Having a skunkworks with a lot more films would let studios experiment with pacing and timing. Maybe you have a rolling skunkworks so there’s always a new small film every month or every few weeks (again, free publicity). Release times and schedules with holidays and seasons could be experimented with as there’s more “stuff.”
  • If it’s not what you wanted, try something else. Maybe a film isn’t going to work in the theater. Well go to video, sell it to TV, etc.
  • Goodwill. Look, we’re all waiting for Hollywood to implode. This would get people interested and supportive as opposed

There’s many films I’ve liked, from truly great films to cheesy B-movies that were not made for a lot of money. I’ve watched “Lost Skeleton of Cadavra” many times, and was blown away by the $1000 film “Manborg.” I don’t know many times I’ve watched “Clerks” or “This is Spinal Tap.” My Netflix queue is filled with small, quirky films.

How many people would watch another set of films even if they weren’t giant blockbusters – or maybe because they aren’t?

Besides, I figure Hollywood can’t do any worse . . .

– Steven Savage