It was the setting up of this site that brought me to this issue.
WordPress promoted the post on the Sneakerboxx site, one wrote a post on the alternate ending of ‘I Am Legend’. Despite having seen the film, and reading up on the issues behind it, I wasn’t aware that an alternate ending to the film was shot, let alone released on the net (not that it was meant to, but that’s another story).
Of course, this is nothing new. Many movies and even TV shows have shot multiple and alternate courses, ensuring that when push comes to show, they will have more cards to play with. Usually, the film is screen tested, gauging the audience’s reaction before the product’s final release. If it scored unfavourably, re-shoots are often scheduled, minimising the financial and critical damage when it opens later at the box office.
However, it does make me wonder about one thing: who is really in charge here? The audience or the filmmakers?
I ask that question because of ‘Legend’’s alternate ending. In my opinion, it achieved a superior emotional impact, one that humanises the zombies that stomp and parade through the yard that is New York at night. More specifically, that humanity allows us to further empathise with them. This empathy can lead to a deeper interpretation of the antagonists in the film; however, test screenings eventually nicked that in the bud. “The other [alternate] ending is more about an idea, not as satisfactory to the big audience,” said the director, Francis Lawrence. “It’s more philosophical, while this [cinematic ending] is more thrilling. But the other is more interesting.”
In order to look at this issue fully, I need to further differentiate between the different notions of multiple endings. The first notion is that the choice is the filmmakers. Let’s take the TV show ‘24’, for example. By the season’s end, the main character’s wife was held in hostage by one of the terrorists. To ensure that even the cast and crew do not leak the season’s end, two different endings were shot. In the first, the wife dies; in the second, the wife lives. The objective is clear: to ensure that the actual conclusion won’t be leaked. This, then, is the choice of the filmmakers. Plus, the inclusion of such scenes on the DVD release adds an extra value: you’re getting something extra with the product that you wouldn’t have otherwise.
Taking the cards slightly out of their hands, market forces also play their role. Looking at television, for example, the TV market in America is volatile: shows can easily be cancelled at a moment’s notice. Such a possibility is a constant worry, however big or small, for cast and crew members. It is understandable; after all, signing on to a tv series or a movie is not just committing yourself to that particular production, it also works as a big sign that says ‘NO’ to any other productions. Denis Leary, for example, had to pass up the chance to be in the 2006 Oscar winner ‘The Departed’ due to scheduling conflicts with his TV show ‘Rescue Me’ (the role went to Mark Wahlberg, who eventually swore his way to an Oscar nomination).
In this environment, then, multiple endings can also be used as insurance. A very recent example is the cancellation of the TV show Jericho. Living out its second life (as the show has previously been cancelled), producers shot two different endings to a future episode, anticipating that their show might be cancelled. One would be shown if the show continues; another would have a more satisfying tie-up to the storylines if they were indeed cancelled (being pitted against the ratings behemoth that is ‘American Idol’, that proved to be a wise choice). Having said that, not every show has such foresight or ability to do so. The cancellation of ‘Carnivale’ after only two seasons (with a five season story arc in mind) was incredibly frustrating. The kind network executives may allow a certain stay of execution. The cancellation of ‘Lost’, for example, were announced some time ago; nevertheless, J.J. Abrams and co will have a couple more seasons to wrap everything up nicely.
If it’s frustrating for us, imaging what it’s like being the director who isn’t sure about what to shoot. Sometimes, filmmakers aren’t so sure which ending to go with. Charged with the task of creating entire worlds, and with the ability to do so, that wide-ranging responsibility can be somewhat daunting. Multiple endings, then, can once again be the insurance card. It happens even to the best of them: Danny Boyle decided against killing Jim in ’28 Days Later’, while Jim Cameron shot alternative endings to both ‘Titanic’ and ‘Terminator 2’. In the latter, he felt that the alternative ending was not in keeping with tone of the film. Nevertheless, in this case, the choice remains with the filmmakers themselves.
Sometimes, however, the choice is not in the hands of the director. A lot of Hollywood movies are screen tested before being released in cinemas. Screen tests picks a select audience group (middle class, 25-40 years old, etc) that confirms to the film’s target audience. They all sign secrecy agreements, before watching the movie in its entirety. Afterwards, they then fill in questionnaires as to whether they liked the film or not, and what could be improved. If the reaction is negative enough, then re-shoots would be scheduled (as is the case with ‘Legend’).
Of course, despite the agreement signed to not talk about the film, some do post online reviews of the films, based on the screen test. The risk of a leak, then, is always there. John August wrote in his blog about his movie, The Nines (which I reviewed here), that such tests could be disastrous for the smaller movies. “Keep in mind: We don’t have distribution yet. We’re hoping to sell the movie after a festival premiere. So if DrkLOrd79 trashes the movie, that sets a bad tone going in. Almost worse would be if DrkLOrd79 loved it and gushed on for pages. We’ve all experienced the disappointment that follows having our expectations set too high.”
So, the easier way out would be to not do such tests, right? After all, the filmmakers are all experienced professionals who know what they’re doing, right? (In the case of ‘Legend’, they are highly-paid professionals) Surely they can get a movie right. Perhaps not testing it would cost a few extra millions lost at the box office, but so long as they hit the basic three-act (beginning, middle, end) part right, then it should all be hunky dory, right?
As have been proven over the years, even the biggest of movies can fall right back down to earth. For every ‘Transformers’, there are also ‘The Island’. ‘Island’ couldn’t have failed: a grade A list of cast and crew (Michael Bay, Steve Jablonsky, Ewan McGregor, Scarlett Johansson, Michael Clarke Duncan), allied with a relatively interesting storyline. But fail it did; taking in only $12 million in its opening weekend. As much as we’d like to believe that people like Michael Bay can’t really go wrong, feedback, as ever, can never be ignored (especially if it is from your target audience). One example of a movie that wasn’t tested was ‘Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle’. It was a move that the writer, John August, admits as a wrong one. “’Full Throttle’ was not untested because it was a bad movie,” he wrote in the same post as above. “’Full Throttle’ was a bad movie because it was not tested.” Risky as test screenings are, then, they seem to be an essential part of the process (at least for the bean counters).
Having said that, test screenings are not all bad. What it does is to give you feedback. Whether you act on that feedback is probably a different story. Rumour has it that the old Batman TV series tested horribly, but producers ignored it; it went on to be regarded as a classic show (though having said that, anything old is tagged as ‘classic’ these days). However, though it makes a movie less bad, it is not a magic wand that can weave quality out of shit. Acting on the feedback, what you can do is to re-shoot scenes, and perhaps even create new ones. But to re-shoot the entire movie? Even worse, to can the whole production? A definite no-no.
So what could be the actual solution? The simple answer is to make good movies. The hard answer is also to make good movies: knowing what makes a movie good and knowing how to make a good movie are two completely different arts. While it’s easy to sit back and criticise, in trying to practise the art yourself, you might end up with twisted blood in your system. It’s not so much the quality of the filmmakers; that has always been very subjective. It’s a combination of different factors, such as having a good script and a good cast and crew to work with. With regards to what John said above, there is also the chance that Charlie’s Angels was a bad movie because of his script. Steven Spielberg, on the other hand, waited almost two decades before doing Indiana Jones because of the lack of a good script.
Which brings to question: what makes a good script? What makes a good production? A good actor , for that matter? How do you categorise a movie as being ‘successful’ or as ‘good’? Before translating the ‘Lord of the Rings’ franchise onscreen, Peter Jackson’s biggest hit was ‘The Frighteners’ with $16 million. If you consider the bottom line to be the be-all-and-end-all, is that to say that Peter Jackson was terrible before his Tolkien movies?
Ironically, I think Malaysian filmmakers have it quite good in this regard. Given that there is not studio system as such, systematic measures like screen tests are not really common (none to my knowledge, but let’s not be totalising here). As such, people like Yasmin Ahmad, Tan Chui Mui and James Lee have been able to do almost exactly what they want, how they want, and when they want it. Success for them has come from without, with international recognition more common than those at home. What is a test screening going to tell them that they won’t know? The only test that they have to pass is that of the censorship board’s. Then again, the decisions of the different authorities (Home Ministry? Ministry of Culture?) can appear to be moronic at times (read this for fun :)).
Even ‘mainstream’ filmmakers (those who make movies solely for money, natch) are not subject to it; the film companies like Tayangan Unggul and Skop Productions, to my knowledge, don’t conduct such screenings either. Not that they need to; despite the rubbish that the likes of Yusof Haslam and Razak Mohaideen has made that passed off as films, they have displayed an incredible knack in knowing their audience well (and thus, made a truckload of money in the process). That, at the very least, deserves some kudos.
Ultimately, who the kingmaker should depends on the movie itself. Personally, I think that some movies, some filmmakers, deserve the right to be unique, different, and not what the audience expects. It’s ridiculous to imagine otherwise; film, after all, is first and foremost an art, rather than the science of making money. Exploring the minds and visions of other people (especially those from other countries) can be a satisfying experience. You might not get it at first, but the good filmmaker (and the good film) ties everything into a nice little box which, when unwrapped, gives you a feeling of enormous satisfaction. Imagine if the likes of ‘The Nines’ or ‘The Prestige’ is changed because some people don’t get it. An alternate ending for ‘Memento’, anyone?
At the same time, I can’t deny that plenty of movies are made for making plenty of money. It’s not a perfect science; many movies that tested well still bombs from time to time. And though directors and actors are responsible for making a product in that regard, those whose money are ringing the cash registers deserve to have their say. After all, if they don’t like it, then they can vote with their feet and stay away.
And staying away could mean the end of some people’s careers.
In that regard, the customer is still, unfortunately, king.
Fikri is really liking Tuanku Mizan Zainal Abidin as his King.