Why Honesty May Not Be the Most Sensible Policy for Movie Studios
I’m not sure I’ve seen a more enjoyable story recently than the one about the head of Universal Studios telling an (undoubtedly stunned) audience just how bad his studio’s movies had been recently. Why can’t we get more honesty like this from people in charge of entertaining us?
For those who haven’t seen this story, the short version is that Universal president and COO Ron Meyer appeared before an audience at the Savannah Film Festival and, stunningly, admitted that his studio and producers “make a lot of shitty movies”, before going on to name said movies. It’s refreshing and oddly reassuring to have someone just ‘fess up to making something that stinks — but, at the same time, I wouldn’t be surprised if Meyer ends up getting raked over the coals for coming clean.
The thing is, just outright admitting that bad movies can happen despite best intentions and talented people may be honest, but it’s disastrous for the movie studios in that it’s as close to an admission of “These things are as much luck as anything” as you can get; instead of coming across as intended — “We know that some of these things haven’t worked out and we’re going to try harder” — it can be read (and, almost certainly, will be read) as “We have no control over the quality of our product, and will release things we feel aren’t worth your money, but expect you to pay full price anyway.” And … no business wants their customers to think that about them, for obvious reasons.
That’s the problem with show business in general; it relies upon an x-factor that, by its very nature, isn’t going to always be present. Many, many professionals are good enough at their jobs that, even when inspiration is lacking, the results can be entertaining, but still: There’s always a danger that any creative work is going to be lacking for no reason other than “It just wasn’t working when it happened,” and the nature of the movie business, or the television business, or any business that deals with creativity is that deadlines don’t wait for inspiration. But admitting that underscores to the audience that everything can be a gamble, and unsurprisingly, lots of people aren’t willing to gamble with their hard-earned dollars for something that may only be kinda-sorta good.
(I also wonder if this kind of talk opens the studio up to — admittedly ridiculous — lawsuits, if someone decides to sue for misleading advertising based on the idea that Universal knew The Wolfman was substandard but released and advertised it anyway?)
And so, honesty may be the best policy, but it’s not the business-smart policy, not for a major movie studio that has financial targets to meet and movies scheduled for release two or three years from now. But there is some level of a plus to all of this: At least there’s a chance that, the next time you pay a stupid amount of money to see a terrible movie at your local multiplex, the head of the studio that released it feels part of your pain … admittedly while counting his cash and heading to the bank, but still …