How Much Does Story Matter In Modern Blockbuster Moviemaking?

I can't tell you how much I want to disagree with the wisdom of Disney Animation Studios CTO Andy Hendrickson, AKA The Man Who Believes That Story Isn't As Important As Special Effects In Movies, but ... he's kind of right, isn't he? For those who have somehow missed reports about Hendrickson's Siggraph conference speech until now, the Disney exec told an undoubtedly surprised audience last week that studios need to make more "tentpole" movies, because they're movies "where you can seed the desire to see the film to everyone in every distribution channel" (He added, "It's the only kind of film you can spend $100 million marketing") before declaring the following, soon to be eternal words:

People say 'It's all about the story,' [but] when you're making tent-pole films, bullshit. [Talking about Disney's Alice in Wonderland], the story isn't very good, but visual spectacle brought people in droves. And Johnny Depp didn't hurt.

Here's the thing: He's not wrong.

I mean, yes, yes, he is, sure; story should be at the core of any movie, because without a good story, you're pretty much guaranteed to have at best a mediocre film. That much is true, and you'd hope that people in Hollywood would be aiming for more than just mediocre. But at the same time, when you look at what he's actually saying, he's completely right: The story just isn't that important anymore when it comes to convincing people to come and see a movie anymore - A fact that can be proven by the box office success of Transformers: Revenge of The Fallen, a movie that literally doesn't make any sense at all by the end of it. Think about it: When people talk about a movie like Avatar, they talk about the effects. When they talk about a movie like The Dark Knight, they talk about the direction or the performances. Very, very rarely, if ever - Inception, perhaps? - do blockbusters and tentpole movies ever hit big because they've been well-written. In fact, it often seems as if blockbusters become hits despite their scripts.

When you look at things that way, suddenly, the need to have a good story lessens significantly. Why spend the time and, more importantly, money on something that few people are going to pay attention to? Why would you exert energy trying to establish things like "motivation" or "characterization" when you could use that same energy to ensure that no-one sees Hal Jordan's toes in his magic booties? After all, isn't a tentpole/blockbuster just a certain type of movie that people don't even expect to spend too much time noticing or even thinking too much about the story, but instead want to be dazzled and amazed by what they're looking at, these days?

And so, Andy Hendrickson turns out to be 100% correct. He shouldn't be, and it's worth noticing that he's not saying that what he's talking about is necessarily a good thing, but he is right. Story doesn't matter that much when it comes to tent-pole movies.

The more important question may be: how can things be changed so that that's no longer the case?

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