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The Tamale Principle.

Simple axiom. When faced with a choice between the unfamiliar and the familiar, most people will choose the latter. At least, thus was the theory posited by my old man when describing one of the quandaries of a democracy.

Hang with me here if you want to know how this relates to showbiz.

Now, if I recall correctly, my father-the-politician used this theorem to explain to his ten year-old-son—namely me—why the better man (in his opinion) had lost a particular election.

“Well, it’s kinda like when somebody goes to a Mexican restaurant for the first time,” he told me.

Now, mind you, this was well before Taco Bell was a sea-to-shining-sea brand and breakfast burritos were served in every public school.

“Imagine this person is reading the menu,” he continued. “And they barely recognize a single item. But they have heard of a tamale. Maybe even they’ve had a tamale before. Chances are, when the waiter comes to take their order, they’re gonna order what?”

“The enchilada?” I messed.

“They’re gonna order the tamale,” my dad finished, deadly serious. “At least most people in that spot are going to order what they know over what they don’t know.”

Thus ended the lesson. Funny how I’ve never forgotten it, either. Though, not until recently had I ever really applied it to my beloved movie business.

A few weeks ago, while out of town with my son, we had an idea about going to a movie. With a handy app on my phone, we checked out what was playing at the local multiplexes. I’m sure you see where this is going. Not only were the same flicks playing at all the nearby movie houses, but nearly each and every one had an overly familiar feel. But for one Oscar leftover, our choices were a pair of sequels, a remake, a re-launch of a franchise, a Marvel movie, a picture promising loads of CGI-generated action scenes, and a stand-alone picture whose ad campaign pandered to the target audience of a recent Christmas tentpole.

“Oy,” I said aloud in the Yiddish parlance of my show-folk brethren.

Even my son couldn’t find the mojo to want to plunk down his father’s Amex card in order to view one of those dogs queued up at the cinema.

Now, a quick disclaimer: One or more of those pictures could’ve been quite a dandy despite the ho-hum exterior. Or even more relevant, they might’ve been one of mine. And in either case, I’d have been annoyed as hell that somebody who loved movies would’ve been left yawning at the gate instead of buying some popcorn and buckling up for a two-hour movie ride.

My point is this: We are no longer dining in an unfamiliar restaurant, faced with a menu full of exotic and exciting fair. The menu being offered to the motion picture consumer is ninety percent familiar. It’s as if everything on the marquis is now a tamale. The big studios are no longer selling us what we want. But even worse, what we expect.

How did we get here?

Forgive my gray hairs, but the business used to rely a lot more on imagination and less on reconstituted, microwavable fare.

Say, for example… A writer wrote a script that garnered strong interest from a producer or studio or star or director. Not because it fit a particular stratagem or target demo. But because it was damn good, moved them from either tears or laughs or dreams of box-office gold. The project was then presented to a savvy studio head—the kind that loves movies the same way he or she did as a kid—who insisted that the movie needed to be made. The wise studio boss gathered his production minions, came up with a dollar figure the studio felt was worth risking on the picture, and off the filmmakers went with a simple warning: work hard, make a great picture, and stay the hell on budget.

Now, depending on the studio and personalities involved, maybe the marketing folks were given a heads up on the pictures currently in production. But mostly, the marketing squads had their hands full with the nearly completed films that were in post-production. Most of their efforts were focused on what was in front of them rather than what was currently lensing.

Once the movie was delivered, be it a big budget star vehicle or some smaller, riskier venture (think seminal films like Midnight Cowboy or Taxi Driver), the studio jefes would weigh in on whether the movie lived up to their expectations and then—and only then—would the marketing guys begin their voodoo, a magic that could land anywhere between Hey, I know how to sell this? to I love it but what how do we serve this to middle America?

It wasn’t easy. But it did get done. Movies landed in theaters on their appointed release dates. And audiences were consistently treated to a marquee menu of differing tastes and textures, from the familiar to the sublime.

That was then.

Somewhere along the way, the word “blockbuster” went from being the descriptor of a movie that went beyond profitable and something that surpassed the normal business expectation to the nascent objective of nearly every Hollywood executive with plans for advancement. If a studio picture failed to breach the magic hundred million dollar ceiling in domestic box office, that movie was considered a failure. To insure as much, those genius marketing mavens who were often housed outside of the studio’s main administration building, found themselves moving closer to the executive suites and being invited into internal development meetings. The mantra of making the movie because we love it morphed into making the movie because we know how to market it.

In other words, if they don’t know how to market it before they green light it… they simply don’t. To which I reply that major studios are no longer in the movie business as much as they have allowed themselves to become a risk-averse, surprise-free, tamale-making enterprise.

Of course, there’s the indie route. It continues to shift and shine, finding financing wherever there’s a tax break or a new crowd-funding site. And God Bless the new visionaries who’re building the next exhibition platforms that, I hope, will continue to draw dollars and eyeballs away from the old tried and true—which I’m afraid has evolved into the tried and tried and tried again.

I can’t rightly say what the future holds. Nor can anybody for that matter. All I know for certain is that people young and old will continue to have an appetite for entertainment. It’s what we put on the menu that will either keep them coming back for more or drive them away in search of a more varied and nutritious fare.

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  1. clive says:

    Good blogg. I liked the axiom part, and it explains some of my behaviour- so i’ve learnt something. I Have theory that the best stories are logic traps. A bus that explodes if it goes below fifty, a taxi driver ferrying a hit man, an innocent man in shawshank, the die hards, (blood money?)etc. My theory is that it’s logic not premise that you need.(premise is good, logic trap/ dilemma is a better story engine)
    Sorry to digress..

    I and my 13yrold (in the uk) have a card that lets us watch any (age appropriate) cineworld film.We can’t always find one.He dragged me into captain philips, and i didn’t want to go because the words true story put me off. I thought it can’t be any good, but it was.

    Most of the good ideas come first in film.Silence of the lambs is an example, and then the x files seemed to use the same techniques, time and date on screen etc.And now that series called the black list. So now the originality seems passe.’

    • Doug Richardson says:

      Thanks Clive. I think I understand. Though I might have to send your comment out for coverage.

  2. Bryan Walsh says:

    Great blog entry and point of view. When I first started writing screenplays many moons ago the one industry axiom I always heard was “write a GREAT script and it/you will get noticed”. Now it’s more like “write a great script that already has a built in audience from a previously successful medium (book, tv show, movie, graphic novel, blog, etc.) that guarantees a studio a decent profit margin in both domestic and foreign markets and you MIGHT have a shot of getting it read by a junior exec at an agency that just hung their shingle.” SMH.

    • Doug Richardson says:

      Hey Bryan. Look what you did? Condensed my blog into a shorter, more coherent blurb. Man. Coulda saved a thousand words. Thanks.

      • Bryan Walsh says:

        Lol, Doug. Yeah, but you’re the guy with the experience so it has more merit coming from you. Also, then what would all of us blogophiles (did I just create a new word?) do not having something to read this Thursday? I guess I could work on a script or something…maybe…

      • marcoselmalo says:

        Bryan’s comment shows his skill at getting to the point, but it didn’t have tamales. If Bryan could combine that succinctness with the right amount of local flavor, he could be the next Hemingway. 🙂

        • Bryan Walsh says:

          Screw Hemingway; he’s dead. I’d take Doug’s career over Hemingway’s everyday of the week. 😉

  3. michelle says:

    Whew! At first Doug, I was worried this article might ruin me on tamales forever, like inform me that they’re terribly fattening or something, which they probably are, but I’d rather not dwell on that. Instead, the article was refreshing and informative as usual. I like to think I’m not writing to fulfill some completely predictable, Hollywood movie mold. I’m my own cookie cutter! I’m always up for seeing something different out there on the menu.

    • Doug Richardson says:

      Eat as many tamales as you like, Michelle. Not fattening at all. In fact, there may be a book coming out soon called THE TAMALE DIET.

      • marcoselmalo says:

        Orale, Doug! What’s your fave supermarket parking lot to buy fresh tamales? I always liked the Foods for Less parking lot on Figueroa, near Ave 50 in Highland Park. Now I’m in Mexico, and a tamale truck drives by my house every other night. Yeah, I eat a lot of tamales!

        Everything you write is true, and it’s been this way for a while. It’s gotten worse and there are no signs it will get better.

        However, disruption often, maybe usually, comes from some unseen quarter and surprises the incumbents. They don’t see the threat until it is too late.

        I think there are three possible disruptors right now (but I don’t know everything, there are probably more). One is webvideo, exemplified by Youtube. From dorky cat videos to web shorts that have taken a lot of effort, money, love, web video is not something any studio decision makers are taking seriously.

        Long form TV drama. The execs notice this, but I don’t think they see a clear way to exploit it for the silver screen. Also note that there is some blurring between long form TV and webvideo. Cf. Netflix original programming and Amazon.

        The third is smart TV apps containing subscription based content. This isn’t a thing yet, but I believe it will be. This is the area I am working.

  4. Kristine Smith says:

    To a great extent, the same thing has happened in book publishing. The Big 5 want bestsellers, but have been letting their midlists die. Self-pub and small press have developed to take up the slack, with growing pains, and just plain pain, all around.

    I wish that the cable stations like F/X, AMC, etc would delve into films the way they have into series and miniseries. I understand that economics of TV vs Hollywood are very different, but even if only a handful of films were made a year, that might be enough to start to shift the culture and appetite for risk.

    • Doug Richardson says:

      You never know, Kristine. Those cablers will eventually need to expand. In the meantime, appreciate the programming that they produce. Far better than most movies of late.

      • Tim O'Connell says:

        Agreed Doug. All you have to do is look at shows like The Walking Dead. Much more engaging than the 300 sequel i just sat through. (brutal cliffhanger they hung on us avid fans btw…just brutal. Hurry up October)

    • Stacy Chambers says:

      I don’t know. I know publishing is in pain but I’ve heard at least one agent hint that there have been some changes and she’s starting to see some amazing results (Kristin Nelson in her newsletter)–though she didn’t go into detail about what those were, that I recall.

      Personally I love what television is doing these days. I remember when SURVIVOR became a hit and everyone was predicting the death of drama TV. In some ways that’s come to pass with all the reality shows, but as far as scripted television, we’ve seen a real golden-age era. I think those in TV knew they had to step it up on quality in order to survive. I keep hoping that the movie industry will take note.

  5. michelle says:

    Yes, I’ve already pre-ordered the book. I intend to place it right next to my coveted “THE CHOCOLATE DIET” book. And with that, I’m off to lunch with a friend to savor some mediterranean cuisine.

    • Doug Richardson says:

      Thanks for the link, Steven. And alas, it’s true in much of life. Not just entertainment. The tamale rules.

      • Glenn McGee says:

        There is hope. I never heard of fish tacos ten years ago and now they’re quite common on menus.

  6. Stacy Chambers says:

    @Mystery Exec made a (rather foul-mouthed) call to change this.

  7. And the wrong people run everything.

  8. Glenn McGee says:

    I’m 56 and wonder how many more superhero reboots will be produced before I’m dead.

  9. John Thomas says:

    As a screenwriter, I’m not so worried about the limitation in choices of concepts for the big screen, because I’ve got enough ideas I’d love to write that I just usually choose one of the ideas that’s marketable to write next.
    But I am a little concerned that the process seems to be heavily weighted towards turning everything into tamales. One of my screenwriting instructors used the phrase “familiar yet different” to describe a concept that will be accepted by the system – at least that’s what we were told is needed to get a script in the door. But once it gets into the process, it seems to morph more and more toward the familiar, regardless of where it started.
    Kind of like, the execs have all had tamales, and they don’t want another tamale. So you need to offer a tamale smothered in curry instead of salsa to get an exec to bite. But by the time the cooks get through with it, the curry looks and tastes an awful lot like salsa.
    And of course, to get people off their couches, you need a little spectacle, so you have to douse the tamale with lighter fluid and torch it. It may taste like crap, but it did get butts in seats in the restaurant!

  10. Chad says:

    Encountered the same thing recently at a pitch meeting with my agent/manager. Not that he didn’t like most of my log lines – he thought the concepts were good, just said that he couldn’t sell them. 10 years ago, yes… but not in today’s market. The one idea he thought he could sell? The big sci-fi CGI extravaganza I threw in as an afterthought. It’s a sad state of affairs, and I hope change is coming soon.

  11. Phyllis K Twombly says:

    Now we have ‘samples’ available. Things like Youtube or Vimeo clips and Rotten Tomatoes ratings to whet our appetites for the movie menu. And then an amazing film like The Lone Ranger is called a failure because they spent too much making it; yet if you only look at how many viewers showed up it would seem like a huge success. How do you like them tamales?

  12. Brian King says:

    It seems to me the studios are only interested in brands, something akin to Coca-Cola, Nike, Virgin, or Apple. These days we have The Marvel brand; The 300 brand; The Hobbit brand; The Jack Ryan brand; The Die Hard brand (although I did enjoy the first three movie in the series, Doug); The Terminator brand; The Hunger Games brand and so on and so on and so on…These franchises, and more, feel like they’re being cranked out of an assembly line as opposed to a movie studio.

    This brings to light another issue: most of the studios are now sub-divisions in gargantuan international corporations. They have fewer slots for fewer films and each costly tentpole (movies where more $$ is spent on marketing than the actual production of the film) has the expectation to perform in the stratosphere. Consequently, when one of these would-be blockbusters scores at the box office, studios repeat the formula, making it harder and harder for anything innovative or fresh to breach the system. Conversely, if a movie flops, they tighten their belts and become very stringent when considering material that hasn’t been previously produced or published in another medium.

    On the other hand, Hollywood is producing some great movies outside the genre world. Prisoners, American Hustle, 12 Years a Slave, Her, Mud and Gravity prove innovative films are still being created. The tide is turning and compelling adult dramas are coming back to the forefront, something that hasn’t happened for over 30 years in my estimation.

    Having said that, it’s also up to audiences to speak with their dollars. If we’re tired of the same old crap we shouldn’t buy that ticket or download that movie. Hollywood is ultimately neutral in terms of what content it will make. At the end of the day the only thing they care about is what will make money. If audiences start supporting films with great storytelling and original ideas then consequently the studios will go back to making those types of films. When all is said and done it takes two to tango.