Sunday, February 17, 2008

Listen to us!

One of the unwritten laws of successful retail has always been - give the customers what they want, not what you think they want. The market research industry was built on the back of this simple rule and woe betide anyone who decides to buck their sage advice. Market research is the finger on the pulse of popular opinion. Of course, it's a good thing that companies strive to create new markets and products and entice people to buy them. But, even then, all new products are rigorously market-tested before they go on sale. A few years ago, I lived near a guy who worked for the Mars confectionary company and thoroughly enjoyed the regular opportunity to tell the company which of the two free chocolate bars they'd given me tasted best.

So why don't TV and film studios do the same? The thought occurred to me while I was damning Ashes to Ashes in the last post. How many films have slid around the U-bend simply because the film-makers didn't bother to do a little market research? How many TV series have wasted our - the licence payers' - money because no one asked us what we think?

Take Judge Dredd as the perfect example.

Here was the opportunity to create a lasting franchise based upon the UK's most popular comics character. There are 30 years of stories to draw upon, an entire universe to play with and an existing fan-base numbering in the millions around the world. The Dredd universe is peopled with brilliant characters from the League of Fatties to Judge Death, Citizen Snork to Anderson of Psi Division. All they had to do was write a script that stayed faithful to the character. That's all. Then just sit back and watch the franchise grow and develop. Sequels. Toys. The animated series ... but they didn't. They took the lazy, star-appeasing route of having Dredd commit the ultimate faux pas: he took off his helmet. Dredd has never taken his helmet off in the comic. Not ever. But Stallone spent most of the movie sans helmet. Already, the character was not Dredd. Then there was his relationship with Judge Hershey. Part of Dredd's appeal is his very two-dimensionality; he is the law. He has no time for relationships. So why change that? Why fix what ain't broken?

The biggest mistake was Rico. One of Dredd's most powerful storylines involved him having to judge his own clone brother - a clever resourceful Judge who abused his authority to get rich. Dredd's adherance to the law transcended family relationships and he sentenced Rico to a living hell; the penal colony on Titan where he would be left disfigured by biomechanical surgery so that he could do hard labour in the zero-atmosphere environment. The writers of the movie just ignored the whole story and made Rico into a raving psychopath. It was impossible to have any sympathy for the character whatsoever. All of this (and so much more ... the awful miscasting of Fergie, the portrayal of the Cursed Earth, the rewriting of the whole Judge system history ...) means that the film was a complete dog and the franchise died.

Any Dredd fan could have told them what to do to avoid this. They could so easily have kept Dredd's helmet on and had Stallone also play Rico, his clone brother (a clone is meant to be genetically identical isn't it? So why employ another actor to play him anyway?). Stallone would have had the opportunity to flex his acting muscles by playing two very different roles. But he didn't. And the film bombed. And that's just one suggestion ... get a group of Dredd fans in a room with the writers and director and I guarantee you'll have a film that's a huge hit.

There is a reason why comic characters remain popular for decades ... it's because the writers and artists have got it right. Why can't film makers learn from that? Why is there this arrogance to stamp their identity all over things and, invariably, spoil it? I wonder who they think goes to these kinds of films. The first wave will always be the fans of the comic. And many of them write the first reviews. Consequently, the second wave - new fans - are already wary and may just download it instead of going to the cinema. I mentioned some of these points when I reviewed the equally awful Golden Compass on New Years Day. If film directors want to show their creativity and experiment with new ideas ... then work with scripts by new writers with original characters and plots. Don't bugger about with the stuff that already has a history.

It's generally accepted that Alan Moore is one of the finest comic writers of all time. His books like Watchmen, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and V for Vendetta broke new ground and stand as brilliant literary works in their own right. But Hollywood has taken them, altered them, and ruined them. Every one. The only film that comes close to his original writing is From Hell. But even then, I'd always read the comic in preference. Watchmen is now in production. Moore has distanced himself from it and I know why. I just know that it will be awful; a pale shadow of the book.

As a final note, can I place on record my concerns about Doctor Who. The question I must ask is ... why is Catherine Tate's Donna character becoming a regular? I don't know anyone who liked her. I detested her (but, then again, I can't bear The Catherine Tate Show). This is no disrespect for Ms Tate who is a clever actor and a good comedian. But did the BBC take a straw poll of the viewers? Or did they arrogantly decide to just do what they fancy? The Donna character is hateful ... and I'd put money on the fact that she turns more viewers off than attracts new ones.

Mark my words. It's Bonnie Langford all over again ...

Listen to the fans.

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