... if Edge of Tomorrow had been a smash hit the lesson Hollywood execs would get from it wouldn’t be “Let’s make more smart, funny, character-driven blockbusters!” but rather “More mech suits! More time loops! People like infantry battles, so more of those!”
Right. It's not that we don't learn from success, it's that we learn all the wrong things.
For those who weren't around when the first Star Wars came out, the only people who seemed to have learned the lessons of its success were Lucas & Spielberg. Everyone else was rushing in front of cameras cheap, junky, knock-off versions of the Star Wars experience — and the fact that Battle Beyond the Stars was actually pretty good doesn't make it any less a part of that overall rush to cash in. Roger Corman was nothing if not shrewd about how to monetize a trend.
But the same thing applies everywhere. The success of Harry Potter didn't give people incentive to sit down, take the thing apart, and try to understand what it was about it that made it captivating. They simply looked at the ingredients on the label — kids, magic, supernatural powers clashing — and poured that same wine back out into any number of other bottles. Getting to the real creativity inside that container is far tougher — and besides, something whomped together out of the pieces of something else is orders of magnitude easier to market.
People too easily confuse the contents of a story with its subject matter. They think that because a story contains something, it's therefore about it. That's why a profound story can be told about simple, even doofy, elements. That's why most great stories sound pretty stupid when synopsized as a logline. And that's also why it's difficult to actually create something new and original, because it's too easy to fall back onto a list of ingredients as a substitute for real creativity. A movie isn't only creative because it has an original story, but for how it makes us see what it has in a light that is entirely its own. "Two guys have a last hurrah road trip" isn't the substance of Sideways, but the premise, and the reason the movie works as well as it does is because it doesn't settle for the premise as-is.
And at the risk of repeating myself: The Great Gatsby. I come back to Gatsby as a teaching example far too often for my own good, but let's face it — it's such a great one, given how the way story has been manhandled amounts to an object lesson. Here, it's a great example of how ingredients and substance aren't the same. The real subject of Gatsby is not the excesses of the Jazz Age but the loss of innocence, and how innocence can persist against all odds inside what looks like the most worldly of containers. That might well be why every movie version of it so far has failed, because they keep filming the ingredients and not the story, and the story takes place somewhere between the page and the reader — not only in the evocation of specific details like the green light at the end of the dock.
Incidentally, Edge of Tomorrow has earned some $340 million against a $150M or so investment. It hasn't done that badly at all. Its future as an SF cult staple seems guaranteed.
Other Lives Of The Mind