Sunday, July 9, 2017

The Challenge of the Studio Executive

Art’s a difficult world to make it big in. For one, many artists struggle their whole lives to make a name for themselves. But even on a practical level, unless you tap into a niche and exploit it at the right moment, chances are that you won’t make it big unless you fall victim to The Streisand Effect. In the meantime, you’ll be tossed around by people with way more power than you, and nowhere is this more apparent than in Hollywood.

I’d been meaning to write about “studio execs are evil” for some time, especially in light of instances like Josh Trank’s Fant4stic being a mess of a production, but I couldn’t figure out how. Then I found out that Chris Miller and Phil Lord were fired as directors from the Han Solo spin-off film and replaced with Ron Howard. This became the talk of film discourse for several days, to the point where it was pointed to as proof that “Star Wars had been ruined by Disney forever” and that “studio execs were stifling artistic visions yet again”. Speaking as someone who appreciates film as a medium of artistic expression, yet understands that the financial side is important, I can’t help but raise a red flag here.

So, are studio executives inherently evil? Maybe, but not for the reasons that people claim. True, they often put money ahead of vision, much to the dismay of product, but sometimes putting your foot down works. Why? One word: compromise.

The word “compromise” has gotten a bad rap in discourse. It shouldn’t, as life is full of compromises. Not everything can go your way 100% of the time, and it’s unhealthy to insist that it should. We live in a collective where different individuals have different needs and wants. Truth be told, the word “compromise” implies that, as it takes its roots in the French word for “arbitration”. In a real compromise, no one’s 100% happy, but they can at least come to a middle ground.

I mention this because film’s no different. On one hand, the medium is, and should be, about artistic expression. You shouldn’t be afraid to try new ideas and push boundaries. But on the other hand, with art comes limitations. Not everything can be provided for, and sometimes certain ideas have to be dropped. This can range from the animatronic shark not working in Jaws, hence Steven Spielberg being forced to focus the film from its perspective, to having the fights in Deapool be small in scale because the budget didn’t allow for grandiose shoot-outs and explosions.

We’ve seen what happens when that balance of artistic expression-to-full-on interference is tipped on either end. In the case of too much freedom, you end up with the Star Wars Prequels. I don’t hate them as much as most, but I can’t deny that their biggest flaw was George Lucas be in-charge of writing, directing and producing at the same time. Keep in mind that he hadn’t directed anything between 1977 and 1999, only produced, so having him tackle a new trilogy without running it by anyone was a disaster waiting to happen.

It doesn’t even have to be that extreme. Anyone remember the 1980 flop Heaven’s Gate? The film’s budget was purported to be about $44 million, yet the end result was such a nightmare that it nearly caused United Artists to go bankrupt. It also was responsible for the current studio system, so good on it! But yeah, having too much creative control, especially when you don’t know what you’re doing, is bad.

Of course, the pendulum can also swing too far the other way. I don’t need to go into much detail about Fant4stic, but did you know that the theatrical cut of Blade Runner was a studio-meddled mess? Film fans consider it a masterpiece now, but the original version was heavily edited and contained droned narration from Harrison Ford. It took three cuts and over a decade of gestation to finally get what we know today.

So what are studio execs for? They’re meant to serve as that balance, and a good executive will know when to step back and when to intervene. Sometimes the changes they suggest are helpful, like how the MCU’s Kevin Feige has kept a tight leash on franchise continuity. Plenty of film purists hate him, as he “stifles artistic expression”, but given that, at least of the film end, there’s yet to be a true dud in the MCU I'd say it’s working. Really and truly, studio execs are that compromise when they do their job well.

And yeah, it can be frustrating having your boss dictate what you can and can’t do. I get it, I hate working under someone else’s deadlines. But the grand irony of the studio system is that it was initially formed as a way of breaking free of Thomas Edison’s tight grip and make films their own way. It’s also ironic that Lord and Miller would be mad about being fired over the Han Solo spin-off considering that their biggest success story, The LEGO Movie, was all about compromising artistic freedom with guidelines and structure. Because if everything I’ve said above is indication, you have to have boundaries sometimes.

I’ll end this with a relevant quote from a great song:
“You can’t always get what you want/but if you try sometimes/you just might find/you get what you need.”

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