A Rebuttal for the Disney Exec Who Said ‘Story Ain’t Sh*t’

Speaking at a conference over the weekend, Disney’s Chief Technical Officer Andy Hendrickson expressed a view moviegoers have long assumed studio execs held:

“People say ‘It’s all about the story.’ When you’re making tentpole films, bullsh*t.”

The worst part is, he apparently thought this was a revolutionary statement. Don’t worry, Hoss, we all saw Indy 4. Here’s the longer account, from Variety:

Disney Animation Studios chief technical officer Andy Hendrickson, in a talk at the Siggraph conference Sunday, laid out the thinking behind the studio’s feature strategy. The bottom line: The average number of viewers per release is falling, and studios need to fight that trend with tentpoles.
The number of tickets sold domestically, Hendrickson said, is roughly flat since 2005. But with the exception of a drop after the 2008 financial crisis, the number of titles released has grown considerably. Even that dropoff only took the number of 2010 tiles back to 2006 levels. Therefore the average number of viewers per release is falling.
“Profit equals the ability to capture more than the average share of viewers,” Hendrickson told attendees at the confab in Vancouver.

Ahh, I see he graduated from Nancy Grace University with a degree in Convoluted Ways to State the Obvious. He went on to say…

…that while the market for homevideo has not shrunk, revenues from each streaming purchase are the same as from VHS rentals. The high-revenue DVD era between VHS and streaming is looking like the aberration.
The equation for studios, according to Hendrickson, is: Declining home profit plus the need for more viewers equals a focus on tentpole films.
A tentpole film is one where you can seed the desire to see the film to everyone in every distribution channel. It’s the only kind of film you can spend $100 million marketing,” he said.

‘Seed the desire?’ Oh go f*ck yourself. Way to metaphorically impregnate your audience, by the way. GRR, JARGON BUKKAKE!

Hendrickson’s talk was mainly focused on solving problems in digital production on tentpoles, but he began with an “Econ 101” presentation on the movie business.
“People say ‘It’s all about the story,'” Hendrickson said. “When you’re making tentpole films, bullsh*t.” 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.”

Now, I’m not going to faint like a Victorian lady over that “story ain’t sh*t” quote, because to some degree, he’s right. Spectacle probably is more important than story in terms of getting people in seats. But the problem he’s worried about — declining attendance — is the exact problem caused by his way of thinking, and I don’t say that to sound romantic. The problem is, everyone’s thinking short term. Execs just assume “people vote with their pocketbooks!” and stop there, as if that’s the end of the conversation between studio and audience. It’s not. A lot of people SAW Alice in Wonderland, but how many left the theater disappointed? He talks as if being bombarded by crappy, spectacle movies that offer big and don’t deliver doesn’t affect peoples’ desire to see future movies. And he says this in the same breath that he worries about declining attendance. Which he plans to solve with, you guessed it, MORE CRAPPY SPECTACLE MOVIES! Brilliant! Power Points and cocaine for everyone!

Point being, you keep making those, and it erodes the audience’s desire for the next one (you’d think this would be obvious, but apparently it’s not). It’s funny that he would cite the top, all-time domestic grossers as part of his evidence, when almost all of those are recent movies (ET and Star Wars being the only ones released before 1990) with higher ticket prices. And those get destroyed by any hit from the seventies and earlier in terms of attendance (again, the very problem he supposedly wants to address). The gap widens even further if you’re talking about the number of people who saw something as a percentage of the total population. OKAY GROSS, ENOUGH MATH!

If people are becoming less excited about movies (and they are), the solution is not more mass-appeal tentpoles. Those are films that a broader cross-section of people tolerate, but no one actually loves. That’s what caused this problem in the first place. The broader the audience you try to please, the more watered-down the product. And if you look at every other realm of entertainment — a billion cable channels, the web, Netflix, podcasts, Pandora, etc. — the trend is in the opposite direction, towards targeted, niche programming that might not appeal to a mass audience, but which a specific audience will pay a premium for. With 3D tentpoles, what studios are essentially asking is for audiences to pay a premium for watered-down, mass appeal crap. It works every now and then, but not when you keeping pumping them out like it’s going out of style. When’s the last time we had a Pulp Fiction or a Fight Club? Those are the kind of movies that get people excited about seeing movies. And pushing those aside so that you can make more Battleships is NOT the way to win back consumer confidence.

(*puts soap box back in closet, goes back to Photoshopping cats*)