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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?


  • Adamh12110

    It’s true to a degree, but when you have a crappy story, you can only convince people to go to those movies once or maybe twice if you’re lucky.  For instance, I didn’t go see the third Transformers movie because I thought the second one was awful.  And I wouldn’t go see a sequel to Alice in Wonderland either.

  • Randy

    It’s true that people go the big summer blockbusters for spectacle and don’t give a damm about story. But using that as an excuse to make films without trying to give their best is a cop out. Most of the moviegoing public might be moronic and tasteless (pretentious and condescending, but true) since some truly great films get overlooked and crummier films get cash. But at least sometimes when a truly good film comes out with a good story, people will come to see it. All filmmakers should try to do bring true quality to their stories, regardless of what the execs and money rollers say.

  • Opeth31

    It didn’t help Green Lantern at all.

  • Wildstorm

    Studios today seem to not care about their movies having any story.  As long as it has explosions, T&A, eye-candy for both men and women, and they can convert it to 3D and charge too much money, why should a movie have a story.  There has not been an original story in a movie in years.  Everything being released is either a remake, sequel, or re-imagining.

  • Jacob

    Of course the CTO feels that way. But John Lasseter, CCO of Walt Disney Animation Studios, probably disagrees. And it’s his opinion that really matters here, since it would be his decision whether or not to cut back on story. And I’m betting on no.

  • Jacob

    “Studios today seem to not care about their movies having any story.”

    Pixar. Which is owned by Disney, who this guy works for.

    “There has not been an original story in a movie in years.  Everything
    being released is either a remake, sequel, or re-imagining.”

    Why can’t a sequel or re-imagining be an original story/movie? It’s all on how you approach it. Especially with sequels/prequels. Then there’s the fact that there are movies coming out all the time not based on anything at all. That’s a very simple and narrow viewpoint.

  • Mr. M

    It pains me to say this a Christopher Nolan fan, but I thought Inception was a muddled, miscast chore of a movie. But it did have a good story idea buried in there.

    As for Mr. Hendrickson, no, he’s not wrong in this particular time and space. Gotta maximize those profits.

  • Wildstorm

    Well, I guess Pixar has never seen Doc Hollywood which was the same exact story as Cars. 

    As for sequels and prequels, the only good one out the past few years was Rise of the Planet of the Apes.  Let’s look at a few sequels that were released:  Hangover 2, same story, different location.  Final Destination 5, yawn, same as the last 4.  Pirates of the Caribbean, should have stopped after the first one. Scream 4, should have stopped after the first. That is to name a few.  Granted some are good like the previously stated RotPotA and Toy Story 3 (which now I hear they want to ruin the series by making a 4th).

    The last sequel I can remember that was good was 2004 Spider-man 2.

    “Why can’t a sequel or re-imagining be an original story/movie?” 

    How can a re-imagining be an “origina story” if they are just rehashing the same story as the previous movie.  Planet of the Apes (2001) was a “re-imagining” and the only thing they changed was that he wasn’t on Earth but a different planet (which is like the novel).

    “Then there’s the fact that there are movies coming out all the time not based on anything at all”  But these aren’t considered “blockbusters”.  The movie The Help is getting rave reviews, but it not considered a Blockbusting movie.  Yes there are movies released every Friday (or Wednesday) but most are not the big summer blockbuster that a few movies are marketed for.

  • Anonymous

    Isn’t the Help based on a book?

    Hollywood has mined books for decades, but I mean go on with your rant. This is the internet.

  • CJ3

    Well I always feel like it’s a balance thing.  I feel that story is just as important as a movie should hold visually, both work in tandem or it could flop poorly or at least not do as well as it should have.  As one person already stated, it did not help green lantern.

    Think of it as a plane, one wing is the story and the other is the visual aspect, both carrying everyone to a specific destination of the journey.  You lose one of those wings and you’re going down, I guess it just depends on which way you’re spiraling…

  • Joey

    “There has not been an original story in a movie in years” – really?  Then what would you call Inception?  Or for that matter Super 8 or The Town or Avatar?  Now there are a TON of sequel’s / remakes but some off them can be very good films, like the Coen bros. True Grit, and even franchise films can be quite good, as evidenced by the last few Harry Potter movies and X-Men: First Class.  Not everything is style over substance like Transformers

  • Wildstorm

    Very good!  Psssst, guess what, Captain America is based on a comic series.

    Anyway, movies that are highly reviewed by critics and people who see the movie, are not seen by the masses.  Take Another Earth, Terri, or Midnight in Paris, all highly rated movies that came out this year but did not break the top 10.  None of these were marketed as a summer blockbuster but had great stories.  People today are just stupid.
    The problem is the studios now think they can slap 3D on a movie to make up for its lack of story, ie. Green Lantern, Avatar, Fright Night, Smurfs, etc.

  • Gabriel Neeb

    Never mind that ALICE IN WONDERLAND sucked.

    Although the comparison is overused, I could write an article about the CEO of McDonalds telling a room full of shareholders that, “Yeah, we know the food sucks, but it’s cheap and available. And the HFCS doesn’t hurt either.”
    For what the Mouse wants to do- make shit tons of money- no, story isn’t important (just as making good food isn’t important to McDonalds). But as a viewer, it’s pretty important. 

  • Jmcreer

    Inception – I’ll give you that, (although some will say that Nolan took a bunch of different genres, thehiest flick, action flick, and mashed them all together to make a film e.g. the snow sequence was his “James Bond”)
    Super 8?  E.T. Been there, done that.  Just add more violence.
    The Town?  Hardly original, but very well executed.
    Avatar?  Avatar, really?  Avatar?  Are we talking about the same film?  The one that stole from Dances with Wolves, Flash Gordon, and A Princess of Mars?  That Avatar?

    There are no more original films – just different takes/ approaches to the same old stories.  Some are better made (like True Grit) but they’re hardly original.  Harry Potter? Ever read Discworld?  Moondust?

  • Jmcreer

    “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.”

    When he said that I couldn’t stop thinking about Avatar.

  • Cjorg2

    Didn’t hurt Transformers 3 though…

  • Jmcreer

    or Avatar.

  • Cjorg2

    Or Pirates of the Carribean 4

  • CJ3

    Well I agree that at one point Hollywood is taking many old movies and re-making them, or re-imagining them etc.  But when we have a story like Inception and then go it’s not “original” because it has elements similiar to other movies then we might as well concede that most movies anymore will not be original for a very long time.
    Any sci-fi movei will be similiar to Star Trek, Star Wars etc, every fantasy movie will have Tolkein elements etc and we could go on.  So we have to establish what we are going to call original and what’s not.  I never consider a movie not-original because it has elements from other movies.
    Kind of reminds me of comics when I was growing up as a kid and one time a new comic came out I believe Gaurdians of the Galaxy and I was telling my friend about it.  He was like “it’s not original because all the guys have super powers similiar to heroes already out.”  While he had a point I conceded that it was an original story with new heroes etc.  It makes me realize that at one point you run out of super power options and you just reinvent them in hew heroes/villians.  You reach a point where you’ve thought about it all or at least it appears that way.
    I guess someone here could test the theory and go write their original story and then look at it from an outside perspective and see if they can find it to be completely original including what elements make the story in comparison to ones already out there, I have a strong feeling it would be tough to do so.

  • shawn richter

    Isn’t it kind of disingenuous to suggest that there are no original stories, based on the fact that we are all made up of our influences?  I mean, yes, Nolan was definitely scratching his Bond itch with that scene, but a movie is more than the sum of it’s parts (unless it’s Tarantino.  Then that’s exactly what it is).  You can’t dismiss Inception just because it has elements of different films – overall, it’s nothing like a James Bond film.  In fact, overall, it’s like nothing else out there at the moment, and is truly original.

    The only reason you think there are no new ideas is because, when you were young and unaware that people were influenced by the things they experienced and translated that into new ideas for various forms of entertainment, you saw everything as a new idea.  As you’ve gotten older, you’ve begun to see the threads of where things come from, an have built up the idea that there is no originality.  Certainly, there is a lot more “re-making” or “re-booting” going on these days, but I also think there is a lot more volume when it comes to film, music, comics, whatever.  So there are still plenty of new ideas, you just have to look for them, and when you find them, try not to cast a cynical eye on them.

  • shawn richter

    He’s right when making tentpole films.  You’re spending a pile of money on it – you just want to get people in the theatre.  It just needs to be a car wreck full of models at a fireworks display and you’re set.

  • Benkchan

    I think the premise is problematic  There are many factors that go into successful films, blockbuster or otherwise.  It’s always a combination of a dozen different elements, and there is no “golden ratio” for how much of each element you need to make this alchemy work.  But executives always like to convince you that they know the answers to justify them having their high-paying jobs.  And the fact is, special effects are easier in that you just have to throw a lot of money at it. All the money in the world isn’t going to make a script great. You need talent for that and executives always downplay talent (of which they have little) and emphasize SFX/money (of which they are in charge)  Which of course gives them in a position of power in a production, doesn’t it? Hmm…

  • Sijo

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

    Or rather,  SHOULD things be changed?

    I thought it has long been a given that yes, most blockbuster movies are light on story and big in SFX or violence, but that’s exactly what the public expects from them, and the rest of the movies are the ones they go see for the story or variety. Not to mention that making blockbusters is often what keeps a studio afloat (unless they bomb) so that they can afford to make the ‘smaller pictures’.

    Also, keep in mind that good scripts *cost more money*. And aren’t always garanteed to help sell the movie.

    Would it be fun if more blockbusters had more engaging stories? Yes. Is it necessary? No.

  • Illuminaughty

    Andy Hendrickson is 80% wrong when looking at the list of the highest grossing films of all time, adjusted for inflation. From that more objective perspective, four of those top ten films were period romances and only two of them touted their effects as the primary draw. It is the erroneous analysis of industry slackers, such as Andy, that are narrowing the market to only a select audience and thereby dooming theatre profits. Quite sad.

  • Miles

    Midnight in Paris did break the top 10.  It’s actually the highest grossing Woody Allen film ever.  And 3D wasn’t “slapped on” to Avatar.  It is true people today are stupid.

  • A Real Black Person

    “It didn’t help Green Lantern at all. ”
    Green Lantern is not popular outside the direct market. Hal is  the type of character that would be very popular in the 1940s and 1950s, when bland white males with no personality were the norm in  science fiction films and corny B-movies.

    They should have grown some balls and gone with the 1940s incarnation of the character, Alan Scott, but cast him as an Indian or something.  I don’t know why not.  No one gives a shit about Hal Jordan or whatever.

  • CJ3

    That may be your opinion, but they may have chosen Hal Jordan because he is more well known in the Green Lantern Mythos???  It’s probably not best to state something like “No one gives a $@#^ about Hal Jordan or whatever.” as an opinion for the populace in general.  I know many avid comic fans who were happy to hear it was about Hal Jordan rather then the others to start off with.  It’s never good to speculate a movie’s flop or success over a racial matter, that’s just immature.

  • Evil_s2003

    To many people are distracted by shiny things. If a movie has to much CG or green screen in it, it turns me off to it. Stuff like 300 and Sucker Punch were to hard for me to get into.
    And green screen, why is it so difficult to just go outside and use a real background, maybe tweek it a little some SOME effects?

  • A Real Black Person

    What you don’t understand is that movies aren’t geared towards avid comic book fans but the general public.  Hal Jordan is another white male superhero and on top of that he’s not relatable to most people,because he’s a boring character.   There was nothing memorable about the movie  or the character to most non-fanboys.  Had Warner Brothers taken some risks and presented  the Green Lantern in a way that was different from what  the current incarnation of the character is in the comics, because Green Lantern is NOT a popular character to the general public, they may have had something different or even interesting to show  moviegoers and made more money. Since Alan Scott was  a railroad engineer,  it is quite possible to have him cast as person of middle east ethnicity, since a country like India is more likely to have a railroad system than America.

    My argument lies on the assumption that Green  Lantern’s mythos is not well-known at all to the general public, and in the comics, several different people have been Green Lantern in the comics, so Green Lantern does not have to be Hal Jordan on the wide screen.