What Makes a Hack a Hack?

Michael BayMichael Bay

Perhaps the worst label one can place on a film director is the word “hack”.   The term is applied with such disdain that even the most casual filmgoers deduce, through contextual cues, that a hack is someone who resides beneath the plane where standard, garden variety sell-out directors reside.  Words can be very hurtful and we at VoH take our labels very seriously, especially the terms visionary and hack.   Furthermore, without clearly defining terms, we cannot separate filmmakers into categories using absolute criteria, even those as disparate as the terms visionary and hack. Hence, before we show you our “Hall of Hacks”, we must first define the term “hack”.

hack  [hak]
noun
A person, as an artist or writer, who exploits, for money, his or her creative ability or training in the production of dull, unimaginative, and trite work; one who produces banal and mediocre work in the hope of gaining commercial success in the arts: As a painter, he was little more than a hack.

Breaking this dictionary definition down into components, a hack is an artist who

1) Exploits for Money in the hope of gaining commercial success

2) By producing dull, unimaginative, banal or mediocre work

EXPLOITS FOR MONEY

A director of film cannot be considered a hack if he or she directs unprofitable or barely profitable films.   For example, Uwe Boll directs laughably low quality adaptations of second tier video games, but he operates within small budgets and his films generate only modest revenues.  Hence, Boll is not commercially relevant enough to be considered a financial success and does not satisfy enough criteria to be classified a hack.  Hacks are directors who play in the big leagues, not in the low budget world of exploitation films.

Can this commercial component of “hackery” be defined in objective terms?  The answer is yes.  Hacks are entrusted by theHollywoodstudio system to direct films that are expected to generate $100 million box office grosses.   They are expected to turn big profits, while staying within massive budgets necessary to reach that $100 million number.  As an example, let’s take a look at the budgets and domestic box office returns for the films directed byMichaelBay, Brett Ratner, McG and Zack Snyder, four filmmakers who have frequently been labeled as hacks by the mass media.

Michael Bay

Film Estimated Budget Domestic Box Office
Bad Boys $19 million $65 million
The Rock $75 million $134 million
Armageddon $140 million $201 million
Pearl Harbor $140 million $198 million
Bad Boys II $130 million $138 million
TheIsland $126 million $35 million
Transformers $150 million $319 million
Transformers ROTF $200 million $402 million
Transformers DoTM $195 million $352 million

Brett Ratner

Film Estimated Budget Domestic Box Office
Rush Hour $33 million $141 million
Rush Hour 2 $90 million $226 million
Red Dragon $78 million $93 million
After the Sunset $60 million $28 million
X-Men:  The Last Stand $210 million $234 million
Rush Hour 3 $140 million $140 million
Tower Heist $75 million $71 million

McG

Film Estimated Budget Domestic Box Office
Charlie’s Angels $83 million $125 million
Charlie’s Angels:  Full Throttle $120 million $100 million
We Are Marshall $50 million $43 million
Terminator Salvation $200 million $125 million

Zack Snyder

Film Estimated Budget Domestic Box Office
Dawn of the Dead $26 million $59 million
300 $65 million $210 million
Watchmen $130 million $107 million
Legend of the Guardians $80 million $55 million
Sucker Punch $82 million $36 million

As you can see in the examples above, each of the four filmmakers listed was able to return a massive over $100 million domestic box office return the first time a Holllywood studio entrusted them with a budget of over $50 million.  Brett Ratner was even more resourceful with Rush Hour returning a $141 million domestic box office gross on a production budget of less than $50 million.

Although Snyder and McG have struggled as of late, one can see why the studios have continued to entrust their big budget properties to these men.  They have helmed major productions and for the most part, have been able to provide a very sound return on massive investments.  It should also be noted that neither revenues from home video sales and foreign box office receipt nor advertising budgets have been listed above.  However, domestic box office alone is generally used by Hollywood as the true barometer for the commercial success.

PRODUCING DULL, UNIMAGINATIVE, BANAL OR MEDIOCRE WORK

Now that we have established that the commercial component of our definition of a hack means that the filmmaker must direct films that gross over $100 million at the domestic box office and operate with budgets that range anywhere between $50 million and $200 million, we must address the second part of the definition.  This is something that will be more difficult to show with objective measures, as the quality of a film is something that can only be measured subjectively.  The closest thing we can do to getting a measurement on the quality of directors films is to examine at the aggregate opinions of film critics by looking at published film reviews and count the number of prestigious film industry awards won.

a) Film Reviews

The websites Metacritic (http://www.metacritic.com) and Rotten Tomatoes (http://www.rottentomatoes.com), both aggregate published film reviews and convert reviews to a 100 point scale.  Although there inherent biases built into the approaches of both websites, we can get a general feel for whether a film has received rave reviews or highly negative reviews by studying the scores posted on these websites.

Michael Bay

Film Metacritic Rotten Tomatoes
Bad Boys 41 43
The Rock 59 67
Armageddon 42 40
Pearl Harbor 44 25
Bad Boys II 38 23
TheIsland 50 40
Transformers 61 57
Transformers ROTF 35 20
Transformers DoTM 42 35
TOTAL AVERAGE SCORE 40.8 34.9

Brett Ratner

Film Metacritic Rotten Tomatoes
Rush Hour 60 61
Rush Hour 2 48 52
Red Dragon 60 68
After the Sunset 38 18
X-Men:  The Last Stand 58 57
Rush Hour 3 44 19
Tower Heist 59 68
TOTAL AVERAGE SCORE 52.4 49.0

McG

Film Metacritic Rotten Tomatoes
Charlie’s Angels 52 67
Charlie’s Angels:  Full Throttle 48 44
We Are Marshall 53 49
Terminator Salvation 52 33
TOTAL AVERAGE SCORE 51.3 48.3

Zack Snyder

Film Metacritic Rotten Tomatoes
Dawn of the Dead 58 74
300 51 59
Watchmen 56 64
Legend of the Guardians 53 50
Sucker Punch 33 23
TOTAL AVERAGE SCORE 50.2 45.0

As you can see from the numbers above, Bay, Ratner, McG and Snyder average less than a 50% from Rotten Tomatoes and 53% from Metacritic.  These numbers indicate that the films are panned by the critics whose scores are aggregated by these sites.

b)  Awards

In addition to receiving absolutely no critical acclaim, hack directors do not receive industry recognition during awards season.  They do not receive Academy or Golden Globe award nominations or any other similar awards presented by film critic societies or prestigious film festivals such as Cannes, Sundance, Venice, Berlin or Toronto.  Hence, it is absolutely not shocking that Bay, Ratner, McG and Snyder have not won any legitimate awards for their directing, although it is true that some of their films have received recognition for things such as special effects.

SUMMARY

Even something as seemingly subjective as determining whether or not a filmmaker should be considered a hack, can actually be analyzed using readily available metrics.  Domestic box office grosses and production budget figures can be used to determine whether a hack is operating at a level high enough to be Exploiting for Money and aggregated critical review scores and award counts can be used to determine whether the director is Producing, Dull, Unimaginative, Banal or Mediocre Work.  Using four directors commonly labeled hacks by the general public, the application of such relatively crude measurements has validated the usage of these criteria to determine whether a director is a hack.

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