On the subject of movie studios, the MBA-trained executives think they are managing their creative slates according to objective criteria. They do, in fact, have spreadsheets where they have attempted to quantify various entertainment factors related to past projects, in order to make future movies more effective (i.e. profitable).
This is why so many blockbuster movies in the past few years have included weird little nods to China, either including a Chinese star or setting a scene in China or including a subplot where Chinese assistance contributes to the success of the overall story. It’s because box office in China has become a significant contributor to the bottom line, so the executives think they can boost this performance by directly pandering to those viewers.
But it goes well beyond that, all the way down to the level of plot elements and how they’re received by the audience, based on test-marketing movies in progress. People have comment cards where they identify what they liked or disliked about a movie, and sometimes they have a response dial or some other electronic device where they swing back and forth between positive and negative reactions as the movie is actually playing.
For example, this is how you get the warped version of Peter Parker in the Andrew Garfield movies written by Orci and Kurtzman and directed by Webb. The whole point of the original character is that his life is a dichotomy. Although it’s fun being Spider-Man, living as Peter Parker totally sucks, but he lives with his choice because he learned from the death of Uncle Ben that he has to be responsible with his powers. This suffering makes the audience feel bad, though, so in the reinvented version, Parker is a much cooler nerd who achieves popularity and recognition at his high school. (Executives actually discussed making Parker a Tough Mudder star.) You can quibble about whether adherence to comics purism is “correct” or “incorrect,” but it’s definitely different, and this is where it comes from.
Of course, all of these supposedly-objective factors are really just well-organized bullet lists of the same old gut-opinion guidelines. By covering the traditional process with a quantitative veneer, executives can insulate themselves from judgment; if the movie fails, they can point to a process where they “did everything right,” in order to direct blame elsewhere. But of course, none of this does anything to make the movie better, and frequently interferes with the process and makes the movie worse.
The live-action remake of Mulan is an excellent example of all of this in action. It’s a handsomely mounted film, well-cast and frequently beautiful to look at. (Niki Caro = good director.) But as a movie, it’s airless, joyless, and lifeless. When you take it apart, you realize immediately that it is not at all an organic story, and rather a mechanical execution of the Disney Executive Slide Deck for Combining Girl Power, IP Exploitation, and Global Box Office Leverage.
- Based on beloved original — make nodding references in remake (e.g. frequent quoting of “Reflection” in the score) — check
- Girl power movie — need female director — check
- Strong-willed girl defying male authority — need to include male love interest so nobody gets the, uh, “wrong idea” — check
- Fighting girl able to beat male opponents — need to include something in the plot to make this “justifiable and realistic” — result, bunch of nonsense about “chi” — check
- Wuxia-influenced movie set in China — cast established Chinese action stars and include scenes where they get to show their stuff, even if it’s extraneous to the plot (e.g. Emperor Jet Li briefly fighting the barbarians) — check
And on, and on, and on. The point is, Mulan is a perfect example of a modern corporate movie project assembled and produced according to the spreadsheet mentality, where the limitations of the approach are clearly apparent even to the casual viewer.