Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Hollywood And Holidays

We’ve touched upon this a couple times in the past: Hollywood doesn’t do the holidays well. That’s kind of fascinating if you think about it, since the holidays seem like they are ready-made for storytelling. Not only are they well defined, they are a common experience, and they have their own emotional base. That should make for a heck of a fertile ground for stories. So what’s wrong?

Here are some possible answers. I suspect they are all in play to a degree, though some less than others.

Hollywood Is Out of Touch: This is a pretty standard talk radio conservative line. The argument is that Hollywood is run by who-knows-what, and they hate us and our traditions. The problems with this are obvious, however. (1) Hollywood isn’t actually “run” by anyone. Hollywood is whoever has the money to produce films. So any theory that relies on a monolithic Hollywood misunderstands the structure. (2) This doesn’t explain why old Hollywood didn’t do any better. So while some people may be like this, this theory simply doesn't make sense to explain the issue.

Stories Need Angst: This argument goes that audiences don’t want to see films that are puppies and unicorns, so if you do a holiday fail, it generally needs to be darker. This is why you get stories like Planes, Trains and Automobiles and Jingle All The Way, which are about the negative side of the holiday experience. But negative doesn't sell during the holidays. So few holiday films are made.

I disagree with the angst argument. Good stories need conflict of some sort, i.e. something that the hero must accomplish despite challenges, but those conflicts don’t need to be negative, nor do they need to be presented negatively. One of the things that makes The Wizard of Oz so engaging, for example, is that while Dorothy must overcome various evil hurdles, Dorothy is relentlessly positive and all the other characters feed off her strength. So I don’t accept that this angst argument is true. That said, however, I do firmly believe that a lot of people believe the angst argument, so I can see this motivating Hollywood to avoid more positive holiday portrayals.

It’s All Been Done Before... By Icons: Hollywood isn’t really concerned about originally, far from it. But every once in a while, an iconic film comes along and you can’t make anything remotely like it without people calling it a rip-off. An example of this would be Star Wars. No one has tried to copy the elements of Star Wars because they know people will be upset. In fact, the first real copy I can think of was Eragon, which was written 35 years later and even then was panned for being “Star Wars with dragons.”

When you look at the stories that dominate the holidays, you see a couple iconic stories that really do eat up large parts of the holidays. Foremost among those, you have the claymation Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, which completely dominates the story of Santa, and you have A Christmas Carol, which completely dominates the idea of repentance which comes with Christmas. What does that leave really? Rudolph encapsulates the “story” of the holiday (apart from the religious aspect) and Christmas Carol dominates the emotional aspect. Between them, that's everything that has meaning about the holiday, and any story you write that touches upon either of those will be seen as little more than a knock-off (the religious aspect is covered by the Nativity Story). That leaves only pieces at the edges, like the shopping experience (Jingle All the Way), and parodies like Bad Santa (parody of A Christmas Carol) or Elf (parody of Rudolph). Indeed, ask yourself what Christmas tale you could tell that doesn’t feel like you are borrowing heavily from one of these icons.

I think there is a lot to this. Anyone doing a Christmas movie will find that the more they strive to include an emotional impact, the more they are accused of copying. That creates a pretty strong incentive to make something else... or just to do a remake of A Christmas Carol.

Fantasy Won’t Do: Finally, we come to the reason that I think really keeps Hollywood out of the holiday business. Hollywood is about fantasy. They get rich by selling us dreams, stories we would love to witness but which will never happen in our lives. In effect, they are selling “The Vicarious Experience.” But you can’t do that with the holidays because we’ve all lived it.

Think about it this way. When you watch a sport movie, you get to imagine yourself as the sports star you never were who overcomes incredible odds to win the game on the last play in an amazing manner. When you watch action films, you get to dispense justice against criminals and terrorists you can’t touch in real life. When you watch a romance, you are the suave lover with all the right words who makes all the right decisions and in the end wins true love with the ideal mate – people who don’t fart or burp or forget to shower or get drunk watching a ballgame, people who only care about you every waking moment. You love these things because for that brief moment in that film, you get to experience something real life will never give you.

But what do you get out of a holiday film? You get a sense of being with people you love. Got that. You get a sense of happiness as people give you presents. Got that too. The holiday spirit. Ditto. You get a chance to fix relationships that aren’t always grand throughout the year. Yep, got that too. See the problem? There is nothing a film about Christmas can provide you that you can’t already feel yourself. People don't see films that offer them nothing they don't already have. And all this really leaves, again is parodies, like Christmas Vacation or Jingle All the Way, which poke fun at what you've experienced, or the retelling of classic stories. But those things don't sell all that all. So again, it's better to avoid the issue and make a different movie.

Thoughts?

23 comments:

ScottDS said...

In your first paragraph, you've pretty much demolished BH's reason for existing.

And my criticisms of your Star Wars paragraph still stand - even if it involves me casting a wider net. :-)

You could almost make the same argument you made re: sci-fi films. As in most sci-fi films are hybrids: westerns, comedies, etc. In that respect, many modern Christmas movies are hybrids: Planes, Trains & Automobiles is a road movie (and it's about Thanksgiving!) while Home Alone is a heist-slash-family comedy, etc. They only happen to take place during Christmas.

Personally, I think a lot of it simply has to do with the trappings of the holidays: romances become a little more poignant when you have Christmas trees and "Jingle Bells" and snow and New Year's coming up. It means something, even if it's between the lines.

tryanmax said...

I think Scott nailed it. The best holiday movies are just movies of another genre set against a holiday backdrop. Much as I hate to admit it, Love Actually is a pretty darn good Christmas movie, and it's really just your typical multi-couple Brit romcom set at Christmastime. (BTW, Christmastime and wintertime are two of my favorite compound words.)

On the Star Wars thing, sci-fi fans seem particularly sensitive to their favorite franchises being "ripped off." This is either because they don't realize the genre is largely derivative, or they do. (FYI, I don't use "derivative" as a slight--unless we're comparing DC vs. Marvel.)

ScottDS said...

tryanmax -

Thanks. I'm a Love Actually fan myself and it seems to have gained in stature over recent years as more of its actors have become famous (Martin Freeman, Andrew Lincoln, etc.).

As for Star Wars, my argument is that many films have copied it, but Andrew isn't casting a large enough net. Sure, no one's technically "remade" it, but think of all the movies that were made in its wake, OBVIOUSLY attempting to cash in on Lucas' creation: Krull, Battle Beyond the Stars, etc.

tryanmax said...

Scott, that is absolutely true. I was just looking at the matter from a different angle.

ScottDS said...

BTW, don't say I never gave you guys anything for Christmas...

Warning: extreme nerdery ahead.

Enjoy! :-)

tryanmax said...

My nerdy little eyes are watering with laughter!

Tennessee Jed said...

I liked Basil Rathbone in A Christmas Carol, but that"artery much it.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I don't think my argument actually destroys the reason BH should exist. BH should be out there pushing conservatives to engage the culture, to improve their craft, to work together, and to push more conservatism into films.

We can agree to disagree on the Star Wars issue. :)

I agree with you. Films today are hybrids and thus making a pure holiday film would be difficult -- it would need to be combined with something else. But you could focus more on the holiday aspect.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax and Scott, On Star Wars... my point is this. A lot of people like to claim that Star Wars was ripped off all the itme and they point to things like those Scott is pointing to or to Battlestar Galactica or even Moonraker. But that's nonsense to me. That is mistaking following a trend for copying a film. Basically, using that logic, anyone who did anything in science fiction after Star Wars "copied it." But that's so broad as to be meaningless. The better way to look at it is that no one has actually mimicked the elements of the film until Eragon. You didn't have stories of farm boys headed off to destroy the galactic empire, you didn't have stories that used the force, you never saw another DeathStar or Darth Vader II, etc.

If we put this into another context, then you see how silly the argument gets. Take Gone With the Wind. The "everyone copied it" argument would have you believe that anyone who did a Civil War story or an antebellum romance after Gone With the Wind was "copying" Gone With the Wind. That's nonsense. Again, "copy" would only be a film that tried to mimic the film itself... something that also doesn't get done because of the iconic status.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, That was awesome! Bravo! :D

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, Nobody beats the Muppets!

ScottDS said...

Andrew -

I was exaggerating about BH, of course, but it's still an argument too many people use a short-hand (read: excuse).

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I agree. And you are right in what you said -- the first point eliminates the purpose for which BH exists in its present form.

My point was more that it should have a different mission than what it's morphed into. It should go back to its original mission.

Jason said...

It’s funny, I was watching Eragon in the theater, and I think at the point the heroes fled the bad guys’ fortress, I realized, “Hey, this is just like Star Wars!” And sure enough, I was right!

Speaking of copying stuff from other movies, George Lucas was miffed at Battlestar Galactica and sued Universal arguing that BG was being passed off as a “Star Wars for television.” Universal returned fire and sued back, arguing that R2D2 was a takeoff of the robots from “Silent Running.” Finally, a judge put a stop to the whole thing and argued certain genre conventions could be borrowed freely across movies and basically there’d be a TON of infractions if that wasn’t allowed.

Tennessee Jed said...

I am l.o.l. At my earlier comment. gadget too small for bifocals. Finally, sadly hit the wall with Christmas Vacation last year. I watched it, and never even laughed once. It eventually happens to all comedies

AndrewPrice said...

Jason, I don't remember when I first realized it, but somewhere early in the movie I suddenly said to myself, "This is just Star Wars.

There is a lot of fighting over copyrights and the such and I remember the big attack that BSG was just Star Wars on television, but there are literally no similarities between those shows either in terms of image, character, dialog, theme or plot. They're both just science fiction.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, That's been happening to me a lot too. Some like Ghostbusters still make me laugh from time to time and I enjoy the characters, but a lot others just don't make me laugh anymore.

ScottDS said...

Andrew and Jason -

Re: Galactica, it also didn't help that the visual effects were being supervised by the ILMers who didn't move up to San Rafael with Lucas and the rest of the gang. I think some people were miffed that they were using various tech developed for ILM on some TV show for another company.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Yeah, I would imagine that wouldn't help. Still, I'm hear people still call it a knock-off today and that annoys me. Show me the similarities!

Critch said...

Tim Allen's The Santa Claus and Christmas with the Kranks were fun...

Jason said...

This discussion reminded me of Frank Herbert’s reaction to Star Wars. He thought Star Wars borrowed a lot from Dune and counted at least “sixteen points of identity” between Star Wars and Dune. Some Dune fans would say that Star Wars copied elements of Dune!

Individualist said...

I think the reason that Hollywood today does not do Christmas movies well is that they are too Cool for School in their Niechenesque Wonderland to make movies affirming life.

If you want good Christmas stories where people embrace Christmas and their are happy endings that are not children's tales you are going to have to watch the Hallmark channel.

AndrewPrice said...

Jason, I've heard that too. What I've seen with the science fiction crowd is that they actually want to claim things like robots and space ships and time travel as their ideas, and then claim that everyone else is copying them. It's bullsh*t.

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