Not many people care to admit it, but Hollywood is run by fear. Fear is an emotion generated by things that are not known or understood, and in the movie business, no one ever knows what's going to happen. (William Goldman was right when he said, "Nobody Knows Anything.") All those accountants, producers, publicists, entertainment TV shows, ad campaigns, etc. are all an attempt to get a handle on the unknown, an attempt to control the uncontrollable. Anything can happen. The world's biggest movie star can jump up and down on a couch and suddenly become a weirdo outcast. Or the star of a dismal turkey like Showgirls can turn around and find herself cast in a Woody Allen film. This fear, in essence, is why so many movies are so bad. The more investors and business people try to control their investment, the more they clamp down on it, and the more it gets smothered.

See, movies can live and breathe like an organic life form, but they have to have a chance. If brave producers step back and let the movie come to life in the hands of a genuine artist, they could wind up with something extraordinary like Joel and Ethan Coen's No Country for Old Men (229 screens), a film that somehow pleased critics both highbrow and middlebrow, won a handful of Oscars and has nearly grossed $75 million. This film has already entered the cultural canon as a classic of cinema. More or less the same can be said of Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood(224 screens), which, having lost the Oscar for Best Picture, is now in a position of being an underrated underdog. But those are exceptions to the rule. No one is immune to the fear: a few years back the Coen Brothers teamed up with sleazy producer Brian Grazer, of all people, and came up with their first dud, Intolerable Cruelty.

Even a seemingly lofty, untouchable international artist like Michael Haneke succumbed to the fear. He agreed to remake his 1997 film Funny Games, in English, for no particular reason (288 screens). Hollywood agreed to finance it because it could be advertised in two ways: it's a remake of an international classic and it's a torture/horror film, which is always good for at least one strong weekend before the box office drops off. It didn't matter that Haneke's last film, Cache, was a highly praised and genuinely shocking work of suspense (and more); critics still saw through this new film and rated it with the same disdain that they would give to the latest Asian horror film remake. (See The Eye, currently on 135 screens.)

The remake concept is important because it gives craven producers something to cling to: the idea worked once before, so it could work again. It's much safer than a new idea. This goes for sequels and films based on TV shows, video games, novels, plays, amusement park rides, etc. As long as there was some previously tested, marketed idea, executives trick themselves into believing that they can breathe easier -- even though it doesn't mean a thing. You could end up with a dud sequel like Sylvester Stallone's Rambo (136 screens) or a terrific adaptation of a novel, like David Gordon Green's Snow Angels (15 screens). After that, we get into gray areas with things like formulas. Martin McDonagh's In Bruges (216 screens) may be an original screenplay, but in essence, it plays a lot like several other recent movies, notably Lucky Number Slevin and You Kill Me. And Cloverfield (205 screens) could be easily advertised as The Blair Witch Project meets Godzilla, or whatever combination you prefer.

Comedies are usually a bit more transparent. Some comedies are just funny, but most of them are based on some "high concept." The makers of 27 Dresses (244 screens) probably didn't notice that stars Katherine Heigl and James Marsden had a wonderful, natural onscreen chemistry; their scenes felt alive and organic. But they were squashed within a stupid, formulaic framework about the 27 dresses and the sister and the boss and all that other nonsense. It's a lot harder, and more of a risk, to try a movie simply about two people without all that other plot nonsense, but it would have been an immeasurably better film. Michel Gondry's Be Kind Rewind(263 screens) is based on a great idea, and one that allows viewers to explore their own love of movies. But the basic ebb and flow of the film is very classic formula, with the heroes learning their lessons and becoming better people.

Some serious films are even lazier. Filmmakers believe that by addressing some kind of relevant social issue, they don't need to concentrate on any kind of artistic touch, or story flow, or anything emotionally engaging. Sometimes critics and audiences buy these films, and other times they don't. Some examples: Under the Same Moon (266 screens) touches upon immigration issues, The Counterfeiters (92 screens) is a Holocaust film and The Kite Runner (46 screens) pretends to examine life in Afghanistan. Biopics, like La Vie en Rose (20 screens), can follow a rigid formula and still pretend to be relevant, as well as the "coming of age film," like The Year My Parents Went on Vacation (22 screens). Not one of these films takes any kind of artistic risk. If a moviegoer is willing to take a chance on buying a movie ticket, moviemakers should be willing to take more chances in bringing them to us.

categories Columns, Cinematical