News Column

What went wrong with Because of China and changing technology, it's only worth it to make big, loud, cartoon films

June 9, 2013

YellowBrix

By MAUREEN CALLAHAN

Sleepless in Hollywood

Tales from the New Abnormal in the Movie Business

by Lynda Obst

Simon & Schuster

In May, after many months of shaky box-office receipts, theaters in North America grossed $1.14 billion, sparked mainly by sequels: "Iron Man 3," "Star Trek Into Darkness," "Fast & Furious 6," "The Hangover III," and one remake, "The Great Gatsby."

Sequels, prequels, and reboots similarly dominate the slate of big releases this summer: "Man of Steel," "Monsters University," "Despicable Me 2," "The Lone Ranger," "The Wolverine," and "Kick- Ass 2" will be clogging multiplexes, along with the big-budget apocalypse epics "Pacific Rim," "Elysium," White House Down," and "World War Z."

It's been this way for quite awhile. In 2011, not one of that year's top 10 movies was an original, while in 2001, only two films, the big-budget "Monsters Inc." and "Pearl Harbor," could be considered such.

What's happening? When did large-scale productions get so homogenous, uninspired, testosterone driven and - for all the explosions and maiming and killing - safe? Why would studios rather spend $300 million on a movie than $20 million? Why has this generation failed to produce a true movie star, and when did our remaining ones - Will Smith, George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt - fail to be enough? How did we come to regard the prefab blockbuster as the only form of filmmaking worth our two hours and $15?

In her new book, "Sleepless in Hollywood," veteran producer Lynda Obst attempts to diagnose what's gone wrong. "This is about an industry that for more than half a century has been the caretaker of an indigenous art form possibly relinquishing responsibility for that art form altogether," she writes. "Movies are an endangered species here."

In April, producer and director Steven Soderbergh gave a "State of Cinema" talk at the 56th San Francisco International Film Festival, and it quickly went viral. His thesis is a bit more sophisticated but no less alarming, defining a movie "as something you see" and cinema as "a specificity of vision," the latter "under assault by the studios and, from what I can tell, with the full support of the audience."

"It's an approach in which everything matters. It's the polar opposite of generic or arbitrary, and the result is as unique as a signature or a fingerprint. It isn't made by committee, and it isn't made by a company, and it isn't made by an audience . . . You've got people who don't know movies and don't watch movies for pleasure deciding what movie you're going to be allowed to make. That's one reason studio movies aren't better than they are, and that's one reason that cinema, as I'm defining it, is shrinking."

Obst and Soderberg have both done their own taxonomies on what's gone wrong. What follows are the major causes of decline:

FOREIGN MARKETS

The tastes of moviegoers in China and Russia - the two largest overseas audiences - now determine what we see in America. As recently as the early '90s, international receipts accounted for 20% of Hollywood grosses; by 2008, they generated 50%, and today it's up to 70%. What translates best: movies with minimal dialogue, little cultural specificity and spectacular special effects - the latter remaining a unique and exclusive American export.

"Things that travel best are going to be action-adventure, science fiction, fantasy, spectacle, some animation thrown in there," Soderbergh said. "Obviously, the bigger the budget, the more people this thing is going to have to appeal to, the more homogenized it's got to be, the more simplified it's got to be."

Veteran executives who spoke to Obst for her book identified "Titanic" as the tipping point, and director James Cameron's insistence on taking it to Russia - which, in 1997, had only one high-tech theater, in Moscow - broke that market open. It became one of the world's most profitable within five years.

In China, which is predicted to be the No. 1 market by 2020, the demand for 3D and IMAX is so overwhelming that the government allows only films in these formats to be imported. Until such markets are able to produce high-quality blockbusters of their own, the United States remains a behemoth, and our studios are circumventing import quotas - China, for example, only allows us to import 21 movies a year - by forging co-production deals with Chinese studios.

So crucial are these markets that content is even altered. The new "Iron Man 3," was re-edited specifically for Chinese audiences, with four extra minutes of footage featuring Chinese stars. The government also was allowed script approval.

This need to appeal to audiences all over the world, to offend no one, means that, in the near future, "we will have no bad guys in our action movies," Obst writes. "Only North Koreans."

BRAND AWARENESS

Comic-book heroes, runaway young-adult bestsellers, amusement- park rides, toys and video games and apps - these are now the things Hollywood will build movies around, because they all guarantee pre- awareness. Spiderman and Superman and the X-Men; "Harry Potter," 'Twilight and "The Hunger Games"; "Pirates of the Caribbean"; "Transformers," "G.I. Joe"; Angry Birds, soon to be a movie - all of these properties have a pre-existing audience. They are also easily adaptable for foreign audiences and are likely to spawn sequels and remakes and reboots (the last "Spiderman" was released in 2007, the reboot last year. The sequel to the reboot is filming now).

It's an endless feedback loop predicated on the idea that anything that worked once will work again and again. J.J. Abrams, having successfully reinvigorated the "Star Trek" franchise, takes over "Star Wars" next. Despite the execrable content of the last few "Pirates" installments, they remain so profitable that a fifth is underway. Among the biggest films currently in production: "Fast & Furious 7," "Hunger Games: Catching Fire," "Untitled Transformers Sequel," "Avengers 2," "Thor: The Dark World" and the unironically- titled "X-Men: Days of Future Past."

"The studios are in the branded-carnival business," one exec tells Obst. "Their job is to make amusement-park rides."

TECHNOLOGY

Until 2009, DVD rentals and sales gave the film industry a 10% profit cushion, but the emergence of streaming video on demand via iTunes, Amazon, Hulu and Netflix has driven that margin down by half - at least.

Peter Chernin, who ran 20th Century Fox and Fox Broadcasting for two decades, tells Obst that no one really knows what the numbers look like and that "the big implication is that those studios are - not necessarily inappropriately - terrified to do anything."

These same technologies also allow for a far cheaper, more pleasant viewing experience at home, with many smaller films releasing both in theaters and on demand the same day. Increasingly, moviegoing has begun to feel like a luxury expense, one worth it only if the effects demand the big-screen experience.

Soderbergh isn't unsympathetic to the studios' plight. "Somebody told me last week that they are doing a better job controlling movie costs but that marketing costs keep moving at a faster trajectory than everything else," he told Deadline Hollywood. "Another terrifying thing is you used to be able to bank on stars. If you had certain elements in a certain kind of movie, you could bank on doing X. Now you are guaranteed nothing."

He's right: slotting an A-list movie star into an effects-driven action film isn't foolproof. Will Smith's "After Earth" just bombed. "World War Z" - which has Brad Pitt and a zombie apocalypse going for it - was so troubled that the studio spent $200 million on production alone and will need to make at least $400 million to be considered profitable, its future as a franchise for Pitt unlikely. Still, the studio has spent $125 million on marketing - the average for what's known as a tentpole.

"I know they've tried to figure this out, because it's killing them," Soderbergh said. "But I haven't seen a Nate Silver-like systemic analysis of what an ad dollar does."

The marketing budget for "Iron Man 3," for example, was $175 million dollars - more than double the combined budgets for last year's "Argo" and "Zero Dark Thirty," Oscar-nominated films that were made only with the help of outside financing. To finish last year's hit "Magic Mike" ($7 million budget, $133 million domestic gross), Soderbergh had to borrow money from his accountant. "It's an extreme brand of loss aversion," he said. "It's just frustrating because the trickle-down effect is, creatively, things are getting narrower."

And the ability to make original, stylish, nuanced adult entertainment - "Silver Linings Playbook," "Django Unchained," "Argo" - is now limited to a handful of critically and commerically proven AAA-list directors.

"The people who can make those movies are on Mount Olympus," Obst says. "A huge class of directors is being cut out of movies."

TELEVISION

"Game of Thrones," "Breaking Bad," "Mad Men," "Justified," "Homeland," "Girls," "The Americans" - these are just a few of the shows that offer far more complicated storytelling and characters than the movies, their longer arcs allowing for a richer, more novelistic experience. Most consider "The Sopranos," which debuted on HBO in 1999, to be the big-bang moment, but filmmakers began gravitating toward TV in the early '90s, right around the time that independent film broke through.

David Lynch's "Twin Peaks" - which had the texture of his films and primed mainstream America for deep perversity - premiered on ABC in 1990, just after Soderbergh's "Sex, Lies, and Videotape" electrified Sundance. One year after "Pulp Fiction," Quentin Tarantino directed an episode of "ER," then in its first season.

Shows like "24" and "The Wire" cemented TV's supremacy over movies.

Unable to find studio backing in America, Soderbergh took "Behind the Candelabra" to HBO, where it became their highest-rated premiere in nine years. No longer do movie stars or A-list directors consider themselves above TV - in fact, TV is the preferred medium: David Fincher directs for Netflix, Scorsese for HBO, Jane Campion for IFC.

Perhaps no example is better than the new season of "Arrested Development" - a cult hit that, upon cancellation, was talked about as a feature film, only to be saved by Netflix.

In one of this season's final episodes, the clever malcontent Maeby - who began working as a Hollywood executive at 15, retired at 23 - offers some meta-advice to a relative hungry for a production deal: "I think movies are dead," she says. "Maybe it's a TV show."

mcallahan@nypost.com

Originally published by MAUREEN CALLAHAN.

(c) 2013 The New York Post. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.

A service of YellowBrix, Inc.


For more stories covering arts and entertainment, please see HispanicBusiness' Arts & Entertainment Channel

Story Tools






HispanicBusiness.com Facebook Linkedin Twitter RSS Feed Email Alerts & Newsletters