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Why intriguing 'Inception' is the Hollywood exception

'Inception' has pulled in more than $150 million with its unique premise and striking visuals – so why aren't there more films like it? Hollywood is risk-averse.

By Staff writer / July 28, 2010

Leonardo DiCaprio is shown during a scene from "Inception." The film's unorthodox plot and stunning visuals have powered it to more than $150 million at the US box office.

Warner Bros./AP

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Los Angeles

Christopher Nolan’s brainteaser film “Inception” has become the bright spot of the summer box office as it passes the $150 million mark this week, alongside word from Hollywood.com that a $300 million domestic haul is firmly within reach.

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But it stands in stark contrast to the other mainstream warm-weather studio films – a slate laden with remakes, reboots and sequels, from the TV-inspired “A- Team” to “Toy Story 3” and “Iron Man 2.”

The boffo audience response to a nearly 2-1/2 hour film full of creative mumbo jumbo about how dreams work and startling visuals – folding city streets, for instance – raises the question of why there aren’t more original films such as “Inception.”

The simple answer is fear, says critic Dan Hudak, creator of HudakonHollywood.com.

“An original idea is harder to market, harder to sell in every way, and harder to raise money for," he says. “It’s more challenging in every way than something with some material attached to it,” be it a previous installment of a franchise, a best-selling book or a television show.

Even if a film's budget is modest, say $10 million, with a fan base attached, studios could expect a return of at least that investment. But with the $160 million gamble Warner Bros. took on “Inception” there was no doubt some nail-biting in executive suites, he says.

While money is the palpable response, the larger answer is what both film and psychology experts call a “culture of familiarity,” in which consumers are continually nudged toward the known rather than the unexpected.

“Market research has pushed this notion that audiences should get what they want and expect,” says Seton Hall University film professor Christopher Sharrett. Nowadays, audiences are completely familiar with the routine of cards being handed out at movie screenings, he says, “and the final film is tailored to the information that comes back to the market research from those cards.”

This process of carefully managed expectations is in stark contrast to an earlier era, the pre-blockbuster days of the 1950s and '60s. “The '50s and early '60s weren’t radical but people paid to be provoked and challenged,” he says, referencing such films as “Birdman of Alcatraz” and “Seven Days in May." The "corporatization" of mainstream movies has utterly changed that, he says, pointing out that today’s films must not only sell hamburgers and T-shirts, but insurance and other extensions of the corporate brand.

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