Hollywood’s focus on superhero movies and franchises is frustrating to both film viewers who yearn for variety and screenwriters who find it more difficult than ever to attract interest for well-crafted original spec scripts.
This trend is the symptom of a broader phenomenon: Hollywood is more interested than ever in making films based on pre-existing intellectual property for the simple reason that these films benefit from the popular awareness enjoyed by the original material. This pre-existing awareness significantly reduces risk, because if a novel or comic has a well established following, there is a very good chance that a film based on that intellectual property will yield a positive return on investment, even if the film itself is lacklustre.
Such a production is effectively almost a risk-free venture – the holy grail of movie executives who need a positive return on investment to advance their careers.
Consider the other end of the film production risk spectrum: a good spec screenplay that presents a reasonably original take on a specific genre – the kind of material that writers love to write, that directors love to direct and that film audiences love to watch. This kind of project is immeasurably more risky than one based on a well-known book or comic, because the audience must be convinced that the story is worth their time and money. The marketing campaign must pitch the concept, the actors and the characters from scratch, hoping that a clear and effective message is conveyed to the right audience.
In other words, it is a cold sell being made to an increasingly fickle and cash-strapped audience. A further dimension of complexity is added by many executives’ inability to distinguish between a mediocre script and a truly excellent one, which makes the whole process rather akin to a lottery from the perspective of the investors who foot the bill. Why risk producing a box office bomb when you have almost guaranteed profits with yet another superhero instalment? This dynamic is partly responsible for the decline in spec screenplay sales.
It’s a tricky issue, because investors cannot be blamed for wanting to maximise their chances of making their money back; financial viability is logically essential to a healthy film industry. At the same time, the creative stagnation engendered by the current risk aversion runs the risk of poisoning the well and causing a chronic loss of film audience engagement.
And that is precisely what I suspect will happen, at some point: a hugely expensive superhero film or franchise sequel will fail spectacularly, destroying the safe haven status that this approach has enjoyed for several years. Shell-shocked studio executives will have tense meetings in which the future is discussed — in the unlikely event that they still have a job — and someone will decide that from that point on, the best bet is to produce sensibly budgeted films with high-quality spec screenplays as the only realistic way of reviving a moribund industry. It is precisely when everyone thinks that a certain approach is a foolproof way to success that the correction arrives, brutal and “unexpected.” This dynamic is a classic phenomenon in the financial markets for very good reasons.
Or it might happen the other way round: a spec script will lead to a huge sleeper hit, as James Cameron’s Terminator did, leading to the long-awaited revival of spec screenplay sales and a renewed interest in making a larger number of movies that cost less to make, thereby spreading the risk, just as sensible portfolio managers are inclined to do.
If that is how things will go, it’s good news for filmmakers and screenwriters who stand to benefit from an increased number of films progressed to production.