The fight for the future of movies.
Hollywood is upside down. The Hollywood of 2021 would never have been imagined in 2001. The Big Picture: The Fight for the Future of Movies is a great book, written by Ben Fritz, a Wall Street Journal author (he used to work for Variety), that will tell you how this new Hollywood came to be and what to expect.
The bits I’m reproducing here are a minimal part of the book, which is an amazing, extensive, clarifying work. If you have an interest in the subject, buy it, no doubt. The point of the following bits is to let you know what the film deals with and to make you wanting for more.
Something big has changed
Over the past few years (…), something big has happened: finally, people in Hollywood do know something. What they know is that branded franchises work. People say they want new ideas and fresh concepts, but in reality they most often go to the multiplex for familiar characters and concepts that remind them of what they already know they like. Big name brands like Marvel, Harry Potter, Fast & Furious, and Despicable Me consistently gross more than $1 billion at the global box office, not only raking in huge profits, but justifying studios’ very existence and the jobs of everyone who works on their glamorous lots.
TV’s golden age and the decline of movies
We’re living in the “golden age of television.” Shifting economic and technological factors have fueled an explosion of originality and risk-taking that makes the “idiot box” home to arguably the best content Hollywood has ever produced. In 2016, networks and streaming services produced 454 original scripted series, more than double the number created in 2010. Some were good, some were bad, but most were interesting, sophisticated, and made for intelligent adults. It was, to borrow a term from the head of the FX cable network, “peak TV.”
The rise of original, risk-taking television is directly tied to the decline of original, risk-taking filmmaking and the dawn of the franchise age of film—one in which studios no longer coddle creative talent, release movies of every type for everyone, or pride themselves for taking risks on quality and new ideas. Instead, movie studios now exist primarily for the purpose of building and supporting branded franchises that continue in sequels, toys, and theme-park attractions. Of course, “event” movies have been around for more than forty years, since Jaws scared a nation and created the idea of a summer tentpole.
TV added pressure to the movie studios
As TV has gotten better, the pressure on major movie studios is not to keep up with Breaking Bad, Orange Is the New Black, and Fargo (a property that was perfect for the movie business of the 1990s and for the TV business of today), but rather to stand out by offering something different. Most people, particularly middle-aged adults, simply don’t go to the movies for sophisticated character dramas anymore.
Why would they, when there are so many on their DVR and Netflix and Amazon queues at home? Why go to the movie theater at all, audiences have asked over the past few years, when movie tickets, snacks, and a babysitter can easily cost a hundred bucks and there is so much good TV to watch and so many apps on their tablets to interact with? Moviegoing is no longer a habit the way it used to be, particularly for people ages eighteen through forty-nine. They saw two fewer films per year on average in 2016 than they did in 2012. When they do go to the cinema, modern consumers increasingly prefer to know what they’re in for, which means a brand-name franchise.
Mid-budget films, an endangered species
Today, anything that’s not a big-budget franchise film or a low-cost, ultra-low-risk comedy or horror movie is an endangered species at Hollywood’s six major studios. And as much as some of us may roll our eyes when we walk by a theater marquee filled with superhero spinoffs and sigh when someone has to explain to us what the hell a reboot is, there’s no question the studios are acting rationally. Of the top fifty movies at the global box office between 2012 and 2016, forty-three were sequels, spinoffs, or adaptations of popular comic books and young-adult novels (five of the remaining seven were family animation, the sole genre in which originality still consistently works).
Big conglomerates decide
Any movie can make a profit and every type does, but all the major studios are now owned by huge conglomerates like Sony, AT&T, and Disney, and for them, only mega-profits—the hundreds of millions of dollars created by a global blockbuster like Jurassic World or Deadpool or The Hunger Games—are relevant. These companies also want to tell Wall Street investors that they will deliver profits with the highest possible degree of predictability, another argument for franchise-driven sequels over risky original productions. Most important, big media conglomerates want movies that generate long-term value.
Cinematic universes rule
Pioneered by Disney-owned Marvel Studios, cinematic universes feature overarching narratives that connect two or three movies per year, allowing storylines and characters to weave in and out of them all. Plot points that begin in an Iron Man movie can continue in Thor and Captain America and be resolved in The Avengers. Ant-Man follows up his first solo film with an appearance in Captain America’s third, where he also gets his first glimpse of Spider-Man. And fans flock to see them all.
Dwelling in the past: The rise and fall of DVD
For a decade starting in the late 1990s, Hollywood experienced one of its flushest moments, thanks to three letters: DVD. Anyone who shopped before 2012 remembers when huge sections of stores like Wal-Mart, Target, and Best Buy were filled with DVDs. The hottest new releases were often priced as low as $13, well below their wholesale cost of $18, in order to lure people into the store. At that price, why not buy a movie and save yourself the trouble of making two trips to Blockbuster Video to rent and return it? DVD collecting became such an addiction that roughly 15 percent of the DVDs sold in the mid-2000s were never removed from their shrink-wrap, a studio home-entertainment president once admitted to me, with a mix of glee and shame. With studios earning a profit of about $15 on each disc, it became easier than ever to make money in the movie business.
In 2009, terror struck at the hearts of Hollywood moguls (…). The sudden and unexpected drop in DVD sales was like having a leg yanked out from under a table at which they had feasted on gourmet food for a decade. Internet piracy was a major cause.
For the first time, Hollywood becomes a foreign-first industry
The transformation of Hollywood into a foreign-first business has also made sequels, spinoffs, and cinematic universes the smartest bet in the movie business.
China, the new mega-player
No peek at the future of the movie business would be complete without a stop in China. Its consumers increasingly dictate the types of movies that get made, and its money is shaping the way that Hollywood works. Its ultimate effect on filmmaking has yet to be seen, but its impact has already been tremendous.
The need to adapt
Some in Hollywood adapted well to this new reality. Disney, as we’ll explore in depth later, reoriented its studio with brands like Marvel and Star Wars and movies based on fairy tales. Warner Bros., which pioneered the global tentpole in the early 2000s with Harry Potter and owned DC superheroes such as Batman and Superman, as well as Lego and the Hobbit, was consistently at or near the front of the pack. Sony was not.
Men in Black 3, Sony’s third-biggest movie of the year, was even uglier. It grossed $624 million worldwide. But after dishing out $90 million in gross points to talent like Will Smith and Steven Spielberg under deals set in place with the first two MIB movies in 1997 and 2002, the studio earned no profits at all. It broke even.
Yet some movies made under the “old” Sony model were outright debacles. One of the most damaging to the studio’s bottom line and its claims of financial discipline was 2010’s How Do You Know? from Pascal’s old friend James L. Brooks. It cost a staggering $120 million to make and grossed less than $50 million. It was both a major money loser and an embarrassment, given that its budget was three or four times higher than that of most romantic comedies.
TO BE CONTINUED at What happened to Hollywood? (PART II): Marvel, Disney, Netflix
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