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.
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.”
“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.
Evolutionary biology may suggest deeper reasons for our attraction to the familiar, says Lou Manza, a professor of psychology at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pa. Continued exposure to the same thing reduces a sense of danger, he says via e-mail. Once safety is established, he points out, we're comfortable with the idea, and humans, generally, prefer comfort over discomfort.
“On the flip side, we tend to perceive a lack of familiarity as bad ... and, thus, we avoid those things. Hollywood simply takes advantage of this effect,” he says, trading the familiar for the more adventurous.
He suggest this is not necessarily a good thing. “If we don't try new things once in a while, life gets boring, and we might also be missing out on something good.”
There is nothing inherently wrong with reimagining earlier works, he says, adding that the history of film is chock full of genres with all sorts of expectations and “requirements.” The challenge, he says, as with the old westerns or musicals or mysteries, “is to balance convention with invention.” Even “Inception” director Nolan, he points out, took a turn with a franchise in both “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight.” The challenge, says Mr. Lehman, “is to take audiences through the familiar but use it to lead them to the new, the exciting, and fresh.”
The DVD phenomenon, with its alternate endings, director’s cuts, and endless commentaries about the filmmaking process is a healthy antidote to the market research culture, he adds. “This opens the door to an awareness of how we are being dulled by an industry that doesn’t want us to be too surprised or upset so they give us what they think we want instead of what might challenge or excite us.”