Most of these examples are comedies, which like last year's summer sleeper The Hangover, are not exceptions to the rule. The only arena where Hollywood is consistently willing to chase originality is comedies, because they know that they have to be fresh and timely. And ideally, they tend not to be expensive tentpoles (studios fall into their usual traps when huge stars are involved). With comedy, high-concept is king, and The Hangover was the perfect example.
Take an original movie like the Tom Cruise/Cameron Diaz romantic action comedy Knight and Day. In this case, Twentieth Century Fox was willing to fund a big-budget original--even though the reason studios avoid doing this is simple: they're hard to sell. Audiences may seek the unexpected and the new, but over the years they have proven over and over that they also flock to the familiar and pre-sold. So nowadays it takes courage for a studio to fund an original summer tentpole. The good news? When they do, they really believe in it. But Knight and Day is tracking badly, because it's not a pre-sold title and its two stars are not at their peak right now. Fox admits that the only thing to do is hang on and hope that audiences like the movie. God forbid!
Truth is, the studios are facing a new reality. Tracking is no longer accurate because audiences are getting wind of feedback on films via Twitter and other social networks. It's hard to buy an opening weekend gross now. But with a movie that plays--which Knight and Day does--it will build good buzz. That's why the studio is not only wisely opening the movie on Wednesday, but sneaking it this Saturday too: they hope to grow strong WOM. (I'm not sure that hawking the first-ever game-embedded trailer will cure the film's marketing ills.)
What the studio has failed to do is get the movie's concept into the ads. The marketing shows Tom Cruise the way we don't like him: over-charged with adrenaline. (The trailer is below.) James Mangold's movie, written by Patrick O'Neill, boasts a clever high concept--it pits masculine/dark/muscled action star Cruise against feminine/light/sexy comedienne Diaz. It's a meta-movie that deconstructs and riffs on its genre formulas. And Cruise and Diaz are a delightful combination. (Here's her Playboy interview.) She more than holds her own with him--they both know exactly what they are doing. Fox believes that the movie will pick up steam as it goes.
These days the studios are rewarded when a movie plays (Iron Man 2, Shrek Forever After, The Karate Kid) and punished when it doesn't. That's why Sex and the City 2, which was a "guaranteed" boffo opener, did not deliver. Folks who didn't like it passed the word to their friends. So a brand isn't going to protect a studio from having to make a good movie. (I'll be seeing Twilight: Eclipse at the LAFF premiere next week. Series fans are hyped. But man does this movie look familiar. That's what marketers need to worry about.) But the studios will still resist originality--because it's harder to push upfront. The tricky issue is how to sell audiences something new--and deliver the goods. Even "original" Inception has a brand to sell: The Dark Knight's Christopher Nolan.
JC Spink (exec producer of The Hangover) is right when he tells Brodesser-Akner that people feel like they are being marketed to rather than catered to:
“I think we’ve all gone a little bit overboard as an industry. There hasn’t been room for original material for a little while now. It’s a shame, because I don’t think it’s what anyone [who works in the business] came out here for.”
Let's hope that Knight and Day shows Hollywood that it doesn't take James Cameron and 3D to sell an original.