"People say 'It's all about the story.' When you're making tentpole films, bulls***."
-Walt Disney Animation Studios chief technical officer Andy Hendrickson
Reactions to Hendrickson's quote from last week's Siggraph conference have ranged from cynicism from to sad acceptance, and it should hardly come as a shock that the ultimate tentpole factory, Disney, would dismiss the notion that story matters to moviegoers. But it's not quite accurate—you need at least one good story. Look at the top 10 films of the year:
"Harry Potter" – Great story
"Transformers 3" – The toys came with a baked-in story that people loved
"The Hangover II"– Great first story
"Pirates of the Caribbean 4"– Great first story
"Fast Five" – Very good story, amazing spectacle
"Cars 2" – Purely a kids film—doesn’t count
"Thor" – Great story
"Bridesmaids" – Great story, but not a tentpole
"Kung Fu Panda 2" – Good first story
"Captain America" – Great story
And on and on and on… until you get to #15, "Green Lantern," a film with a strong backstory that was told so poorly told that the once-presumed sequel is in peril. Hendrickson also declared that a tentpole was a film "you can spend $100 million marketing," so when a film like "GL" takes in a measly $115 million, what you have on your hands is not a tentpole—it's a write-off.
Hendrickson pointed to his own studio's recent "Alice in Wonderland" adaptation starring Johnny Depp and Mia Wasikowska, to bolster his point:
"The story isn't very good, but visual spectacle brought people in droves. And Johnny Depp didn't hurt."
Wrong—the story of "Alice in Wonderland" is awesome, one that will be told for another thousand years. Unfortunately, there's a grain of truth in what Hendrickson said, as once a studio gets its mitts on a good story, the narrative too often becomes a secondary consideration. He's right about Depp, though—that man is a human ATM, drawing in undiscriminating moviegoers like moths to flame.
Ultimately, Hendrickson should be forgiven for his hubris. As one of the heads of Disney's animation department, the man's focus is on visual spectacle, it's how he relates to film. Actors notice acting, directors notice directing, writers … you get the idea.
There's a lot wrong with Hollywood, including the way in which the conceive of and write stories. But to suggest that story doesn’t matter, now that's BS.