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March 12, 2012

“Nobody Knows Anything”

by Howard Suber

As much research has demonstrated, creativity in the arts seldom consists of producing something entirely new, but in putting together two or more elements that had not previously been brought together. A very large percentage of the elements in film storytelling are to a large extent based on what has come before.

But this does not mean you can willy-nilly combine elements in any which way The New York Times article linked below refers to the 1912 source material, A Princess on Mars (notice the gender shift in the film’s title), as “a bewildering mash-up.” Having now seen the film, I’d say that, if you don’t concern yourself with plot, character, and dialogue (something large portions of foreign audiences without a strong command of English don’t) and just surrender to spectacle, the film is often entertaining.  

I suffer from a congenital defect: I have no interest in telling other people why they should or should not react to a film the way I did. So, my concern is not in talking about what’s wrong with the film, but in how one of the most successful studios in history invested $350,000, 000 (the Times estimate of production and marketing costs) in a nearly hundred-year-old pulp fiction work that nobody had been able to crack before and then hired someone who had never directed a live action film before to direct it.

I’m not attacking Andrew Stanton – he’s proven himself immensely gifted in animated films and, besides, if someone gave you unlimited money, wouldn’t you take it? I’m attacking the thought process (or lack of one) that explains how this mess happened.

In Adventures in the Skin Trade the estimable screenwriter William Goldman said in passing, “Nobody knows anything.” The line was immediately seized upon as a Deep Thought, the ultimate explanation for everything that happens in Hollywood. I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard the line used by people in the industry in the 29 years since Goldman’s book came out – usually when explaining some kind of failure.

If nobody knows anything, then why bother to ask whether a nearly hundred-year-old work that nobody else thought would make a successful film was now ready to be made? If nobody knows anything, why not give control over a $350,000,000 investment to someone who’s never worked in a live-action film before? If nobody knows anything, why question the director’s several dubious actions? For that matter, if nobody knows anything, why not hire as your top managers people with no experience in film, as Disney did a few years ago, and let them supervise (or not) this very risky investment?

I do not think it is true that “nobody knows anything.” But if the people who make decisions don’t know anything about the medium they’re working in, then it’s actually quite comforting to believe that nobody knows anything.

Copyright (c) 2012 Howard Suber

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