A shame I can't remember where I read this — it wasn't even all that long ago — but there was some interview with a Hollywood exec who quoted the whole line about story being paramount in filmmaking, and then followed that up sarcastically with something like "Not after $200 million, it isn't."
He might well have been paraphrasing what had been said about Avatar, possibly even by James Cameron himself: when you have that big a budget, you can't gamble with storytelling experiments. You have to go with what you know works to get asses in seats, and that means time-tested formulas.
There's a lot of truth to this, but there's also just as much blinkered behavior.
It never ceases to amaze me, given the sheer amount of money thrown at a film, how remarkably little thought or effort is expended on assembling a story to go with the spectacle. If you subscribe to the David Denby school of Hollywood decadence — and even I only agree so much with him — it's at least in part because the people involved are visual designers and salesmen, not storytellers. (I'm leaving the word "artists" entirely out of the discussion for now.)
Even outside of such an embittered point of view, it's still easy to see what short shrift story gets: instead of being the underpinning for a film, it's only one of many subordinate ingredients. This is not to say that every film has to be the product of a Stanley Kubrick, whose fanatical oversight of every aspect of the production is meant to bring it in line with his intended story — that approach can be just as smothering and lifeless as it can be bracing and total.
What I find odd, though, is the idea that a robust story, an involving story, is now being conflated that much more with an experimental or risk-taking story. When every aspect of your film is focus-grouped to death (because in the studio's mind, that's the only way to guarantee the needed degree of pre-sales to cover its costs), it's difficult for the story to not become a quivering heap of "four quadrant"-friendly, risk-free second guesses.
What I don't get is why, if such a project already has the minimum requisite elements, the one thing about it that would make it original or interesting — the story — is the one thing pounded on and cross-annotated until nothing's left but the studio's production memos. I've mentioned the "Nikkatsu formula" before: back in the late '60s and early '70s, that company left the actual subject of its low-budget films entirely to its directors, as long as the films had the requisite amounts of sleaze and sex and an appropriately prurient title. The end result was, as you can imagine, a lot of trash, but also that many more little bits of groundbreaking within the confines of the Nikkatsu formula.
If I'm asking for anything, it's that the story people be left alone to do their jobs. The studio's job should be to take the movies they get and come up with the best possible marketing plan for what they have. This is not to say they should throw their money after films with no discernible audience (and even I have a hard time believing there exists any movie with no audience at all). What they need to recognize is that audiences come in all shapes and sizes, and that an audience will manifest itself to match something that speaks with its own voice.
New York City
Other Lives Of The Mind