Is Hollywood Embracing Originality Again?

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Inception and Despicable Me topped the box office this weekend. What's noteworthy about these two films? They were both original ideas in a sea of Hollywood sequels and remakes. Michele Norris talks to former studio head Bill Mechanic. He says Hollywood should make more movies without a number at the end of the title.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Hollywood is many things. But this summer, original is not one of them.

(Soundbite of movie)

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (as Character) Oh, it's good to be back.

NORRIS: We've seen "Iron Man 2" and "Sex and the City 2," both sequels of movies already based on a comic and a TV show; there was "The A-Team," also based on a TV show; "Eclipse," the latest film from the "Twilight" book series; and then there's "Predators," a sequel to a sequel, and that's assuming you don't count the "Predator's" side projects with "Aliens."

To be fair, a highlight of the summer is "Toy Story 3."

(Soundbite of movie, "Toy Story 3)

Unidentified Man #2: New toys!

(Soundbite of cheering)

NORRIS: A very good sequel - but no surprises. What was surprising was the performance of one movie last weekend that wasn't based on anything other than a very good idea.

(Soundbite of movie, "Inception")

Mr. LEONARDO DiCAPRIO (as Dom Cobb): There's something you should know about me. I specialize in a very specific type of security: subconscious security.

NORRIS: "Inception" made more than $60 million. Coupled with the runaway success of "Avatar" last year, we wondered: Is Hollywood getting back in the business of original ideas?

To help us answer that question, I'm joined by Bill Mechanic, the former chairman and CEO of 20th Century Fox Filmed Entertainment. During his tenure, Fox produced some very big and unoriginal films - including "Titanic" and "X-Men" - but also "The Full Monty" and "Boys Don't Cry."

Mr. Mechanic, welcome to the program.

Mr. BILL MECHANIC (Former Chairman/CEO, 20th Century Fox Filmed Entertainment): Well, thank you for having me.

NORRIS: We're glad you're here. First things first, what do you think: One or two films, does this make a trend?

Mr. MECHANIC: No. I think it'll take more failures to get the business off of this current trend of the last few years, of copies of copies.

NORRIS: Help us understand what happens in one of these meetings where films are green-lighted. When someone brings in a script that sounds wonderful - it titillates the mind; you can see it, you can feel it, you understand who might star in it - but it's an original idea; it doesn't follow a beaten path. What kind of reception does it get?

Mr. MECHANIC: Well, it's really prior to the green-light. Usually, when you're starting development, you start with - if somebody brings in an idea or a piece of talent pitches an idea, then the doubts start to seed in of, well, who's the audience?

When it doesn't have a easy hook to it or it's like "Inception," which is hard to describe what it is, then it will take a superior piece of talent, like a Chris Nolan, to get that picture put through.

NORRIS: And Chris Nolan, of course, is the director of that film.

Mr. MECHANIC: Yeah.

NORRIS: Probably helped also by the star, Leonardo DiCaprio.

Mr. MECHANIC: Yeah. I think in the case of Chris Nolan, after "The Dark Knight," probably could have done anything with anybody. And, in fact, stars like Leo - Leonardo DiCaprio and the others, you know, a lot of really talented people in the picture want to work with him. But I think Warner's, in that case, probably would have made the picture without a big star.

NORRIS: You know, in many ways, Hollywood feels like a parallel universe. It's almost like visiting outer space without leaving the galaxy. But in terms of the business model, it really is wholly different. I mean, most businesses are constantly on the lookout for something new, something fresh, something original - not Hollywood.

Mr. MECHANIC: Well, let me argue that. I think most businesses, the thing that I always thought was unique about Hollywood, or about the movie business, is that if you do iPad, something like that, you're Apple, you create one new product every few years. Once you have iPad, all you're doing is making improvements of the iPad. But you're making, essentially, the iPad for the next four or five years.

When you're making a movie, you're making a new movie every week, and they all have to be different. So the fact that "Inception" works doesn't help whatever the next movie is that Warner's has on the release schedule.

NORRIS: Now, I appreciate you speaking with candor about your own experiences. You ended up leaving Fox in part because you championed a film based on a book that seemed at the time a risky choice, not to mention a choice that was somewhat controversial. I'm talking about the film "Fight Club," which has turned into a huge cult hit - still quite popular, though it didn't initially do really well at the box office.

Do you remember a conversation at the time, with the people that you had to answer to, in which you had to defend your decision to make that movie?

Mr. MECHANIC: No. I had to fight to get it made. So - but that was true of a lot of pictures. You know, "Braveheart" was - I basically had to almost resign to get made. Same thing with "Fight Club." So there were, you know...

NORRIS: You almost - you were willing to walk away from the studio in order to get that made?

Mr. MECHANIC: Yeah. I mean, I think running a studio, I've always equated it to managing a sports team. You know, if you're - in some ways, you're hired to be fired. So better to be fired with some dignity, and be fired for things that you believe in, than fired for making copies of copies.

NORRIS: To go down with honor, if you have to.

Mr. MECHANIC: That's okay. It's not the worst way to go down. You go down anyways.

NORRIS: Bill Mechanic, it's been a pleasure to talk to you. Thank so much.

Mr. MECHANIC: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

NORRIS: That's Bill Mechanic. He's the former chairman and CEO of 20th Century Fox Filmed Entertainment.

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