|The usual suspects dominated the screen this summer.|
Another summer of screen blockbusters is nearly over and once again the multiplex has been dominated by comic book heroes, post-apocalyptic survivors and teen warriors of the future. Though romance has been generally lacking in these action-packed thrill rides, science fiction has certainly been featured, even in the speculative nature of disaster movies like SAN ANDREAS.
The small screen, too, is full of SF—from the SYFY Channel’s more traditional space opera KILLJOYS to ABC’s Earth-based THE WHISPERS. There’s even a soap opera about space (ABC’s THE ASTRONAUT’S WIVES CLUB, about the women behind the men of the Mercury space program).
Obviously Hollywood thinks SF sells. What’s so appealing about the genre for film and television?
--SF is visual. Spaceships! Monsters! Disasters! The end of the world! Superheroes and arch villains battling it out in the middle of cities, destroying everything! Cool tech and even cooler special effects and makeup. The guys (and, make no mistake, they are overwhelmingly male) on the technical side of filmmaking love this stuff and delight in one-upping each other. No other genre gives them the same opportunities.
--SF lends itself to simple plots. Good guys vs. bad guys. Monsters/aliens vs. humans. Superhero vs. super villain. Etc. The exceptions to this rule in the last few years can be numbered on maybe two hands—GRAVITY, INTERSTELLAR, HER, LUCY, a few others. They get lost in the avalanche of mindless fare at the multiplex and, with the exception of the first two titles, are seen by only a handful of dedicated SF film fans. Simple is best, especially on the big screen. More room for explosions. (Television fares better in this regard, since paying for big effects is a problem for TV networks. A show like DEFIANCE or PERSON OF INTEREST can focus on relationships and ideas and find a faithful audience on the small screen.)
--SF skews young. The majority of the movie-going audience today consists of teenagers and young adults. (People like me, who can remember when comic books were not an art form, but something you could buy for a dime at the corner drug store, tend to watch movies at home.) This audience is most likely to be drawn to stories and heroes taken from the media it is already familiar with—comics and graphic novels, television, retro movies, young adult science fiction bestsellers like The Hunger Games and its clones.
--SF skews male. Yes, I know, dear reader, many of you are female and love SF, too, but Hollywood doesn’t much care about that. The powers that be have convinced themselves that men drive the entertainment decisions—including what gets seen on date night and what is watched on TV or computer or tablet. Hollywood has decided (presumably by market research, but who knows?) that, with some exceptions, “audiences” don’t want to see women in lead roles, they don’t want films by or about women, and they damn sure don’t want films in which women play the heroes. Science fiction, in which, traditionally, the men dominate, gives Hollywood what they think they want—and lots of it. The percentage of women starring in, directing, producing and writing movies and television has actually dropped since the 1990’s. We can only hope the success of films like MAD MAX:FURY ROAD (starring the mesmerizing Charlize Theron) will change some minds.
In the SFR community we have long hoped that the trending love for SF on the screen will open a door for us with both readers and the not-so-Invisible-Hand of the market. But that has not happened so far, and I fear it will never happen. The problem is that the science fiction we see onscreen--certainly the SF we see on the big screen, though to a lesser extent the SF we see on TV--has little similarity to the kind of SF we are writing. In general, our stories are much more diverse, female-centered, character-driven and complex than the majority of stories we see in the multiplex. Then, of course, there’s the romance, which is most often only hinted at in the theater.
We have assumed all along that the audience for SF on the screen is the same as the audience for SFR in readable form, or at least that there is a great deal of crossover. That’s based on the anecdotal evidence that lots of us like SF movies and read SFR, too. We need to determine whether the majority of the movie-going audience is really open to what we’re selling, and, if so, how do we reach that audience? If our basic assumption is not true about this film/SFR connection, then who are we really writing for? The answer has to be greater than “people like us,” lest we continue to sell books to only each other.
I don’t have the answer to these questions. If I did, I’d be Number One on Amazon. But if any of you has some insight, I beg you to share.