Ed Driscoll

Hollywood's Inconvenient Sci-Fi

There’s an article in Wired News by Jason Silverman, which starts with an interesting premise: the scarcity of good science fiction at your local movie theater. The writer correctly notes that because of the huge budgets required to provide the necessary WOW! factor that sci-fi movies require to blow its audiences out of their seats, it’s that much more difficult to get a film like 2001 or Blade Runner green-lighted in Hollywood’s current challenging environment:

Why has Hollywood stopped making serious sci-fi? According to Gordon Paddison, New Line Cinema’s executive vice president of new media and marketing, it is all about risk and money. Paddison described Hollywood financing as formula-driven: Films with the potential to travel well across borders score the highest points.

“Sci-fi is hard to fund — it’s never a slam-dunk,” said Paddison, who helped launch campaigns for the Lord of the Rings trilogy. He also said the system is geared toward films with huge effects.

“Regrettably, there’s a barrier to entry,” he said. “You have to put a certain level of budget into these films. You have to swing for the fences, otherwise you just aren’t in the game at all.”

If sci-fi has always been hit-or-miss with studios, investors these days seem less willing to gamble. Who knows if The Terminator, for example, could have gotten the green light in this environment? It was made in 1984 for $6 million — the kind of midrange budget that rarely exists any more — and starred a little-known weight lifter with an unpronounceable name.

Star Wars, a monumental struggle for George Lucas to produce, would likely be a non-starter these days. Blade Runner? Perhaps too dark to get financing. And 2001: A Space Odyssey? With its cast of unknowns, enigmatic ending and (in inflation-adjusted figures) more than $50 million budget, it just wouldn’t compute with today’s backers.

Unfortunately, Silverman undermines his argument with a sentence that’s a combination of both political correctness and an “Everybody Knows” mentality:

As for the audiences? If they’ll flock to the theaters for Al Gore’s PowerPoint lecture, you’d hope they’d show up for good, smart, science-based fiction.

But they didn’t flock to the theater’s for Al’s PowerPoint lecture: An Inconvenient Truth grossed a paltry $23,808,111 at the box office, which the author could have found in about five seconds by simply by looking up the film in the Internet Movie Database. While that gross is no doubt a nice return on what is probably a tiny documentary budget, it’s less than Tom Cruise’s salary.

In addition to the leading man’s costs, there’s the budget for the rest of the cast, Industrial Light & Magic’s special effects, building the sets, location shooting, and a thousand other expeneses. Add it all up, and you reach the same conclusion that New Line Cinema’s executive vice president makes in the quote above–that Hollywood is pricing itself out of business.

Tthere’s another element as well. Earlier this year, Libertas described one of Hollywood’s current business models:

Hollywood has recently perfected a formula whereby low-budget, indie-looking films generate good reviews, controversy, and oceans of free publicity (a lot of it coming from the conservative media) due to a film