Valentine’s Day has an 18% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Only 54% of audiences liked Gary Marshall’s 2010 ensemble rom-com, and it was almost universally panned by critics. The film, along with its director, has become a punch line, proof positive that there’s something wrong with Hollywood.

No, wait.

Mr. Marshall and company made an intellectual sequel (if you can call it that) to VD: Last year’s New Year’s Eve. (7% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes)

Why? Why, why, why, why, why? Not to insinuate that the director has ever been concerned with high art, but Pretty Woman, Beaches, and even Overboard stand head and shoulders above these cinematic war crimes.

The answer is simple: Money. VD made $200 million dollars worldwide. NYE brought in $140 million. These films are undeniable box office successes. In fact, the former is in the top 25 highest grossing Romantic Comedies of all time. These movies’ big business proves something deeply sinister about the Hollywood Studio system.

To uncover the truth behind the “success” of these movies, we turn to a movie half as lucrative as Valentine’s Day: 2011’s Moneyball*

In Moneyball, Brad Pitt’s Billy Beane desperately tries to revolutionize the game of baseball and bring a championship to his Oakland Athletics.

Conventional wisdom dictates that a great baseball player is a five-tool player. He (or she) can hit for average, hit for power, run bases quickly, throw powerfully and accurately, and field well. Fill a team with five-tool players, and you’ve got yourself a championship. What Beane (along with real-life assistants Paul DePodesta and J.P. Ricciardi) was banking on was that one stat, on-base percentage, was a better indicator of a successful player and a successful team.

Let’s now apply this to moviemaking. Movies also have tools typically associated with their success: Writing, Direction, Cinematography, Acting, Sound Design, Editing. If all these elements are great, a movie can’t help but be successful, right
It seems Marshall and his loyal army of Marshans have figured out what studios have been on the cusp of realizing for decades. The only thing that matters in making a movie a box-office success is star power. You see, you’ve got to get yourself a BUNCH of famous people – at least a dozen. Pay them each a fraction of what they typically make for only a few days’ work, and you can save yourself a bunch of money. Julia Roberts, who typically makes upwards of 10 million dollars per film, appeared in Valentine’s Day for 30% of that.

Don’t worry about a solid script – or any script at all, really. The directing can be mundane, along with the cinematography. As long as the film is barely coherent, everyone will be cashing major paychecks. Each star has his or her own built-in box-office. Some people will see Juilia Roberts, Ashton Kucher or Halle Berry in a movie no matter what that film is about and no matter how much screen time they have. Hire the stars just so they can go on the poster.

So what?

Hollywood has been making terrible movies forever and will continue to do so until the world ends. The problem is the breaking of a tacit agreement between filmmaker and audience. This social contract states, “You bring us a good movie, and we’ll give you money to see it.”

Mr. Marshall (and yes – he can directly be blamed because he’s proven he knows better) has a responsibility to try – to put in an honest day’s work at one of the most enviable jobs on the planet. There are directors who are simply bad directors. They try their best, think that they’ve made a great product, and it just so happens that they’re wrong. Gary Marshall is not one of those directors. He knows what he’s doing, and it seems he’s found a way to cheat the system. He just doesn’t care anymore. He has a responsibility not to turn in crap, and he’s been shirking that responsibility.

However, it’s not solely the filmmaker’s fault. We, the audience, are responsible for this mess too. We have to hold movies to some standard, and when certain films don’t meet our standards, we don’t see them, and we tell our friends not to see them. In the same way we can’t expect politicians to tell us the truth unless we punish them for lying to us, we can’t expect filmmakers to have a high-quality product until we tell them with our wallets that we deserve a high-quality product.

*Alll three movies each cost approximately 50 million dollars to produce.

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This article was first posted on September 13, 2012