That sound you hear is Venti Espresso Lattes being nervously gulped in Hollywood, receiving the latest box office gross disappointments week after week. The word is that box office receipts are off 25% this year, after a boatload of failed reboots, sequels, re-dos and comic book copies. Who knew the nerds at Comic Con would eventually inherit the world?
Take for example Sony Picture's "Spiderman" franchise. The same movie is basically remade every 5 years once the teen audience grows up and a new teen generation starts going to movies. Or Disney's "Star Wars" franchise. One "Star Wars" was fine, but now it has morphed into a whole shopping list of prequels, sequels and spin-offs.
The once reliable adult generation have, years ago, realized long ago that they were no longer audience for movie studios, because most movies based on human relationships or stories without the protaganists wearing a cape just don't have blockbuster potential. And that formula worked for several years, but now that all the juice has been squeezed from that orange, the well is running dry.
Enter 32-year-old Damien Chazelle, fresh off is directing success in "Whiplash," he grew up in the U.S. and France loving the classic American musicals such as "Singing in the Rain." While studying at Harvard, he and roommate Justin Hurwitz, a music student and composer, fantasized about the day they would bring their own visions of the updated musical film to Hollywood. Their original attempt to get "La La Land" off the ground fell flat because they could not get the funding, but the success of "Whiplash" - which got 5 Oscar nominations including Best Picture - raised his profile in Hollywood where he was able to get "La La Land" funding from a studio to get the production off the ground.
"La La Land" is not a typical Hollywood 1950s musical. There are plenty of original songs, composed by Hurwitz, but there is no stereotypical happy ending. Yes, people do break out in song in public, but it's all very natural without seeming forced or artificial. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are two wanna-bees struggling in LA to make their dreams come true, who both find out that for every dream out there that comes true, there is also a price to pay.
The film opens with a sensational musical number "Another Day of Sun" filmed on an actual LA freeway entrance ramp with a cast of endless cars and dancers. There is nothing fake or CGI about the number.; it is actual dancers on top of car hoods on the freeway. The next number takes place at a big Hollywood home in the hills with a large cast of talented dancers.
The film received a record 14 Oscar nominations, tying the record with "All About Eve" and "Titanic." It famously lost the Best Picture to Oscar to "Moonlight" in a strange bit of Oscar history when it was mistakenly announced as the Best Picture winner. Emma Stone won Best Actress for her role as "Mia" in the film. More importantly to the studio, the film was a huge financial success, It grossed globally $340.5 million on a budget of around $30 million.
So what can we learn from "La La Land"s success? I don't believe the studio gave Chazelle the green light because they had market research that indicated that what audiences craved was a modern musical with a bittersweet ending. In fact, I have no doubt they were very nervous doing any kind of musical. By the same token I don't think RKO Studios or Merian C. Cooper in 1933 had market research that the audience craved seeing a giant ape climb the Empire State Building. 20th Century Fox in 1977 did not have research that showed the key to box office success was having a interplanetary action drama with no major names called "Star Wars." In each case, all the studios had was a a creative driving force with a dream that was brilliantly executed that caught the imagination of moviegoers. That kind of commitment is almost always worth the risk.
Of course, there are certain movies that will always be pre-sold and be a low risk, such as 1939's "Gone With the Wind." The massive book sales of Margaret Mitchell's best seller, along with the casting of Clark Gable, practically guaranteed a monster box office. But studios would be much better served trying to instead nurture great talent with a particular vision they have a burning desire to bring to the screen that will light that fire of imagination and wonder back in the minds of moviegoers.