Hollywood's Familiar Movie Playbook: Five Tropes that Work and Five That Should Be Forgotten About
In Hollywood, everyone involved in the process of creating moneymaking films tend to find a formula and milk it for all it's worth before moving onto something trendier. It's a fact of life in this industry and any other for that matter. The bottom line was the most important element everyone in a money operated business had to contend with. Being hip and relevant caused more money to be had and made at the same time.
When it comes to finding a successful formula in terms of marketing and storytelling devises, they stick to tried and true methods based on past successes. They often tend to overlook the higher ratio of failure in certain elements, such as cutting costs on special effects. If the product was of poor quality, it made audiences not like what you're selling on the big screen and stay away in droves. Another category was when Hollywood tried to make stars out of musicians with it only working some of the time. These movie tropes were a hard balancing act when they sometimes worked and other times failed miserably.
Here is a list of five movie storytelling and marketing devises that worked and five that failed miserably time and time again. Of course, there's also the instance of a category or two being a toss up, which will be discussed as well. Read on to see if your favorite movie made the cut, or missed it narrowly.
Mixed Blessings/Disastrous Planning
Singers Jumping into Acting-
Okay, when it comes to success, Hollywood liked to think that a musician's on-stage prowess translated into a larger market. Mick Jagger made multiple attempts to get into acting, but he was basically portraying himself so it never really left a mark. Take for instance: Madonna in the 80s and 90s. She was a controversial lightning rod that would guarantee seats in any darkened movie theater. Unfortunately, her acting talent lacked a certain finesse onscreen that her musical performances seemed to make up for in spades. Her first major film in 1985's Desperately Seeking Susan played to her strengths and only showcased her in small doses. In 1992's A League of Their Own, she was only a supporting player that seemed to get by with her onscreen rapport with costar Rosie O'Donnell. As for 1996's Evita, it was a musical; so she was good on that front. Everything else she has done on the big screen was the object of critical scorn and audience ignorance from 1993's Body of Evidence to 2002's Swept Away. Before and since, countless pop stars have attempted big screen success from Mariah Carey (2001's Glitter) to Britney Spears (2002's Crossroads.) Some have garnered much praise, while the last two examples failed miserably in forgettable films with wooden performances.
As for the successful portion, for every Madonna there was a Diana Ross (1972's Lady Sings the Blue) and Jennifer Hudson (2006's Dreamgirls) looking to rise to the top. Hudson alone won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress on the strength of her onscreen presence, which has allowed her to follow-up on success in other films with varying results. Unfortunately, the same can't be said for Hudson's costar Beyoncé in the film. She seemed to literally get lost in the shuffle with Hudson and Eddie Murphy's top notch performances. The same with Ross for playing Billie Holiday in this biographical picture. Her performance was memorable and tragic to watch at the same time knowing the real Holiday's fate.
Doing it all for the Paycheck-
Okay, now this one was a little bit of toss-up and partially tied back to the previous one a little bit. 1992's Freejack was a subpar sci-fi that bombed when it first came out for obvious reasons. Mick Jagger was cast as a bounty hunter who literally knew nothing of the script when he signed on, but had regrets once he signed on the dotted line. Anthony Hopkins chose to follow-up his Oscar winning role in The Silence of the Lambs with this schlock as a one note villain. His brief appearance came across someone who was literally doing it for the money. He even said in later interviews that the movie was terrible. For Jaws: The Revenge, Michael Caine said that he never saw the movie, but saw what his paycheck paid for.
Why is this item considered a blessing and a curse? Well, there wouldn't likely be any interest to check something out if certain stars didn't sign onto these less than stellar projects. That's why Netflix and other streaming services thrive on: revenue. You will watch it, even if you feel guilty about doing so.
Tried and True Plot/Marketing Elements
Colorful Vampire Villains-
In many supernatural films, the presence of a memorable villain can make up for anything lackluster about the overall film. Take for instance: 1992's Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Rutger Hauer played the main vampire villain and his humorous presence allowed audiences to see that he was seemingly in on the joke as well. In 1994's Interview with the Vampire, Tom Cruise chewed the scenery perfectly as a lively and unnerving Lestat. He seemed to radiate onscreen that his costar Brad Pitt's Louis never did. Sure, author Anne Rice wasn't initially thrilled when Cruise was cast but her negative opinion changed when she saw the movie. Whenever Cruise came onto the screen, viewers knew something dark and entertaining was going to happen. One bright spot in an otherwise forgettable franchise was Michael Sheen as one of the Volturi vampires in the Twilight films. He brought a certain level of mischief that the franchise sorely lacked overall. His presence also helped to deliver a ridiculous plot twist in the final film that made it work.
Morose Onscreen Heroes-
Okay, this one ties in the previous one on the list. Both the Twilight films and Interview with the Vampire contained depressed leading men who were stuck with a supernatural curse. They let everyone know every time they entered the screen ad nauseum. Robert Pattinson looked like he would rather be doing his taxes than playing Edward Cullen every time he made his presence know. As for Brad Pitt, his part in Interview with the Vampire was that of a man cursed into an existence he didn't choose for himself. He had also said that he had a hard time making the movie in later interviews, which surely came off in his performance. His character did have a few moments of levity, but they were few and far between by the time the end credits rolled around. This method of watching our heroes evolve as the story went on proved to be a gold mine in storytelling and will likely continue for as long as movies are made.
Stephen King Adaptations- Author Stephen King is considered a master of suspense based on his literary classics, but it was the successful translation of his work into films that was a literal gold mine for Hollywood. 1976's Carrie and 1980's The Shining became horror movie classics that scared the living daylights out of viewers. Sure, those two movies came into contention because they took some liberties with the source material, but they were still iconic all the same. His latest offerings turned into movies this year were It: Chapter Two and Doctor Sleep. It's too early to tell how these movies will compare to earlier theatrical classics, but early signs say that there was some potential to be had.
PG-13 Horror Movies- Now, this successful formula was a little harder to swallow for fans of violent slasher films who upped the blood and gore to keep viewers glued in their seats. The reason that PG-13 horror seemed to work was that they didn't go for the obvious scares but went for ones that creeped inside your mind and scared the living daylights out of your as the movie went on. That's how M. Night Shyamalan has made his bread and butter since 1999's The Sixth Sense. It's the subtler scares that lulled audiences into a false sense of security before the big ones come to truly terrify them.
Risky Endeavors that Need to Stop
Mining True Life-
When it comes to biographical pictures, there was a time and a place for them to be shown. In regards to semi-fictionalized events, it was best to not let viewers know that because they will spend the bulk of the film looking to find out what was fact and what wasn't. The usual offenders of this trope were stand-up comics looking to make a name for themselves on the big screen. Amy Schumer made 2015's Trainwreck as a starring vehicle for her brand of comedy that took certain elements of her life and onstage persona so that she would be more relatable to viewers. Since the success of that movie, she has been playing the same persona ever since. She would've been better off trying something a little newer in subsequent films sooner rather than later, but it's likely too late because viewers already identity her with the filthy party girl persona ever since. Hopefully, she will start to take more risks in future projects, but that's unlikely.
When it comes to loyalty for his friends, Adam Sandler was a likable guy who had it in spades, but viewers sometimes wished that the material was better packaged to showcased him hanging out with his Hollywood buddies. Since his early Hollywood films, he loved to include his friends in cameo appearances and sometimes leading roles to show his appreciation. A prime example of this trend was 2010's Grown Ups where Sandler costarred with the lion's share of his rolodex. There were some funny parts in the movie, but it was mostly familiar gags that viewers have seen before. Maybe, if Sandler chose his costars based on their talents and not just their likability that would help make his later movies stand out more.
Girl Next Door/Femme Fatale- This plot telling trope has been a fixture in most film noirs since the dawn of old Hollywood. Unfortunately, this tried and true device only worked when both elements were cast correctly. If the wrong actresses were chosen for those roles, it could sink the movie. A prime example would 2006's The Black Dahlia. In that film, Hilary Swank played the rich seductress with a lethal secret and Scarlett Johansson played the good girl with a dark past. Based on past performances and believability, it would have been better if the roles were reversed. Swank could better sell the part of a complicated good girl and Johansson could have been a convincing villainess. It also didn't help that the film suffered from a flawed script on top of this as well. With all that going against it, the movie was doomed from the start.
Poor Special Effects-
A movie was only good as the stunning visuals that played out on the screen. If the camera angles were bad and the effects were laughable, a movie was potentially sunk. One small example would 2001's The Mummy Returns. Sure, the film was almost a perfect action flick, except for one thing: the introduction of The Rock's The Scorpion King. The effects were simply just plain silly to watch and almost threatened the credibility of everything else that came before and after that moment. It's best that everything was in line before anything else was sent away to theaters. It could make or break a film.
In the end, Hollywood was all about focusing on the bottom line. Money talked and everything else seemed to walk in the opposite direction. If one element was proven successful, producers loved to milk them for all they were worth. Instead of choosing based on quality, studios loved to saturate the movie theater with questionable amounts of quantity. You would that if money mattered they would be a little more careful not to waste in on less than stellar material.
Sure, some ideas might look good on paper and get greenlit before realizing what an unmitigated disaster they had in their roster. It was also widely understood that the moviegoing public was finicky. They might love something one minute and detest it the next. Timing was also a factor in releasing a potentially successful movie. If it was released too early or too late, they could've missed the mark for good. Overall, certain tropes will always be proven successful, while others will always fail. Just learn to embrace the ones that work and watch the other ones in secret.