American movie-goers may not be as dumb as we think they are. OK, many of them still flocked to see duds such as Transformers 2 or The Grown-Ups, but those movies seem to cater to specific demographics anyway (Transformers: teens, especially boys who love the toys and the cartoon; The Grown-ups: Adam Sandler's horde of Peter Pans).
But things may be changing. Looking at the summer box office, as the season is already 2/3 over, shows us Americans can be very sophisticated and they CAN and will reject dumb movies and reward smart, solid ones.
The #1 movie of the summer is Toy Story 3, which remains in the top 10 and will likely cross $400 million domestically. Sure, it's Pixar, and we've always had a love affair with their films; but Pixar's continuing success says something about our high expectations and how a company like Pixar continues to not only meet, but exceed those expectations. Toy Story 3 is smart, touching, and funny. It tells us that we don't have to dumb it down to be entertaining and popular.
Inception is also doing extremely well, soon to be crossing the $200M mark domestically. Arguably the smartest, most thought-provoking blockbuster of the year, maybe even the decade, it also doesn't dumb it down for the audiences. It manages to mix exciting action-adventures (just because we like them doesn't mean we're stupid -- there is smart action and stupid; know the difference) with mind-blowing concepts and true emotions. The success of Inception tells us: Americans like to be intellectually challenged; they like to solve puzzles; and they like to think while they're being entertained.
The poor performances of Salt and Charlie St. Cloud tell us something else: do not regurgitate. Both films boast their "proven" formulas and stars who are known to draw their respective demographics. The result is painfully obvious: don't talk down to your audiences. Both did relatively well as far as their target demographics are concerned, but there's nothing else beyond that. And certainly they won't be sustained by repeat viewings. Part of what makes a blockbuster a blockbuster is due to repeat viewings -- such is the case with Toy Story 3 and Inception, as well as Eclipse (which is considered the best of the series).
The same can be said about the publishing business. As someone said to me, "A good beginning will lure people to buy this book; a good story and ending will lure them to buy your other books." It's all about repeat business, man! Anyone could write a book that sells at least a few copies (to friends and family, at least), just as anyone can make a movie that sells at least a few seats (even my friend's super low-budget, DVD-only movie made over $1 million). But the bottom line is: if you want repeat business, do not talk down to your readers. Do not regurgitate tiresome ideas and flat characters. Do not think you can pull one over your readers.
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.
To me, the market of late has been saturated with derivative work, especially in genre. Granted, some readers read for escape and comfort (probably why Romance remains the #1 genre). Still, give us something new and refreshing, and give us characters we like, whom we'd like to visit from time to time. If Toy Story 3 is any indication, "old" doesn't have to mean "stale." Is there anything groundbreaking new about the movie? No. We know the characters so well already. So why does it strike a chord with us, still? Because it refuses to be derivative, and it continues to do what makes the first two work so well: stretching our imagination. with great characters and universal themes and emotions.
And it's a good lesson. A lot of new writers fall into two traps: a) trying too hard to come up with a unique and killer "high concept"; b) becoming lazy to think of something new. They forget what storytelling is all about.
A) it's not about "totally new" ideas -- no ideas are 100% new and original anyway -- but it's about telling a story in new and unique ways. For example, there's nothing new about "dreams" or heist, but Inception succeeds in combining the two elements and making it fresh and new.
B) "familiar" doesn't mean stale and derivative. Often the criticism bestowed on Salt runs along the line that it's just Jason Bourne with a vagina. Crude but true.
Also, it also depends on the execution. Give two writers the same idea, and one could turn it into gold and the other a dud, simply by their skills and the ways the idea is executed. It's a mistake, to me, to say "story trumps everything." It's true to some extent, but not in vacuum. A concept could be the greatest thing on Earth and would still fail because the writer lacks the ability to execute. Personally, I think it's very important that writers learn and sharpen their skills and continue to improve on their craft. And that includes everything from grammar and vocabulary to techniques such as point of view, dialogue, plotting, structure and character development.
Anyone who says novel writing is easy either a) has never written one to completion and to publication quality, or b) has no respect for the craft and hard work that go into the profession.
And even the professionals can't do it right all the time. Take a look at the summer movies and we'll realize, yeah, even the pros can be wrong.