Mark Harris explains what happened to the good movies and why we shouldn’t expect them back again any time soon:

It has always been disheartening when good movies flop; it gives endless comfort to those who would rather not have to try to make them and can happily take cover behind a shield labeled “The people have spoken.” But it’s really bad news when the industry essentially rejects a success, when a movie that should have spawned two dozen taste-based gambles on passion projects is instead greeted as an unanswerable anomaly. That kind of thinking is why Hollywood studio filmmaking, as 2010 came to its end, was at an all-time low—by which I don’t mean that there are fewer really good movies than ever before (last year had its share, and so will 2011) but that it has never been harder for an intelligent, moderately budgeted, original movie aimed at adults to get onto movie screens nationwide. “It’s true at every studio,” says producer Dan Jinks, whose credits include the Oscar winners American Beauty and Milk. “Everyone has cut back on not just ‘Oscar-worthy’ movies, but on dramas, period. Caution has made them pull away. It’s infected the entire business.”

For the studios, a good new idea has become just too scary a road to travel. Inception, they will tell you, is an exceptional movie. And movies that need to be exceptional to succeed are bad business. “The scab you’re picking at is called execution,” says legendary producer Scott Rudin (The Social Network, True Grit). “Studios are hardwired not to bet on execution, and the terrible thing is, they’re right. Because in terms of execution, most movies disappoint.”

With that in mind, let’s look ahead to what’s on the menu for this year: four adaptations of comic books. One prequel to an adaptation of a comic book. One sequel to a sequel to a movie based on a toy. One sequel to a sequel to a sequel to a movie based on an amusement-park ride. One prequel to a remake. Two sequels to cartoons. One sequel to a comedy. An adaptation of a children’s book. An adaptation of a Saturday-morning cartoon. One sequel with a 4 in the title. Two sequels with a 5 in the title. One sequel that, if it were inclined to use numbers, would have to have a 7 1/2 in the title.1

And no Inception. Now, to be fair, in modern Hollywood, it usually takes two years, not one, for an idea to make its way through the alimentary canal of the system and onto multiplex screens, so we should really be looking at summer 2012 to see the fruit of Nolan’s success. So here’s what’s on tap two summers from now: an adaptation of a comic book. A reboot of an adaptation of a comic book. A sequel to a sequel to an adaptation of a comic book. A sequel to a reboot of an adaptation of a TV show. A sequel to a sequel to a reboot of an adaptation of a comic book. A sequel to a cartoon. A sequel to a sequel to a cartoon. A sequel to a sequel to a sequel to a cartoon. A sequel to a sequel to a sequel to a sequel to a movie based on a young-adult novel.2 And soon after: Stretch Armstrong. You remember Stretch Armstrong, right? That rubberized doll you could stretch and then stretch again, at least until the sludge inside the doll would dry up and he would become Osteoporosis Armstrong? A toy that offered less narrative interest than bingo?

I am going to expand on some thoughts I outlined here. Different media have different requirements. Anything that drives down revenues is going to hurt a content-producer and content-deliverer. However, depending on the media involved, the result of this for the end-consumer is going to be different.

For instance, if it ever were to come to pass that making records wasn’t profitable on a wide scale, there would still be records. Some people are born to create music. There’d be garage CDs and at least some people that eek out a living for a while playing live shows and selling a few CDs until they have kids and need a more reliable income. The consumer (or at least some of them) could still be hurt because they would lose the primary pipeline through which they are regularly introduced to music without having to seek it out. The record labels select the artists, spend lots of money on advertising to get the songs on the radio and in the ears of the populace. This would be inconvenient for most people that prefer to have music presented to them. You would also have less professional sounding recordings. There would be a lot less in the way of auto-tuning and so the singing itself might be somewhat worse. But… there would still be music. All the music you could ever afford to buy tenfold. Enough music that you would enjoy being made by some aficionado somewhere.

The same goes for the publishing industry. Even if they weren’t getting paid for it, a lot of people would still write. Enough would be competent that while the end-product might be worse than before and they may be more expensive (no economies of scale), but they would be there. While you may have to seek out books rather than having a natural pipeline to your local bookstore, books (like music) do not require all that much in the way of capital these days. Books and music can be produced with passion and a couple or a few thousand dollars.

Movies, though, are a different bird. They require huge investments. Millions upon millions of dollars. Some aficionado in Minneapolis is going to have a hard time putting together that kind of money without investors. Investors are not going to invest unless there is a good chance on a return of their investment (or, if the article’s Chris Nolan example is correct, staying in the good graces of someone that is going to deliver for you in the future). If the revenue streams dry up, nobody will invest. Of course, in this case the revenue streams have not dried up (yet), but it has become so that studios have to be really conservative as to what they greenlight. So you’re stuck with assured successes, like the next Batman movie, or movies that, if they fail, won’t have cost all that much. If the Batman movies ever cease to make a profit, we would be stuck with a product (unlike with movies and records) radically different from what we have now. Every movie is inexpensive. Every movie is Clerks.

I don’t know if this will ever happen as it seems that there will always be room for generalist entertainment. Though said entertainment will get increasingly conservative and uncreative over time. While Clerks is (in my opinion) a good movie, it’s not what I would want every movie to be. The difference in quality and scope with inexpensive equipment would be severely limiting.

On the other hand, with technology getting better and better, between now and then we could reach the point where people could make their own animated or CG productions with a more manageable level of effort and investment. There are people that make their own productions using anime footage, for instance. They are hindered by having to conform to existing footage. So consider something like Red vs Blue writ large. Red vs. Blue is a production based on footage from Halo, a first-person shooter game. Its story is constrained by its setting, but imagine a “game” specifically designed for the purpose of making movies. You actually don’t have to imagine it because it exists. The movie-making ability appears to be pretty limited, but it’s not hard to imagine someone picking up where they left off, as that program did with the ones that came before it. (Update: There is apparently an application called iClone that’s more specifically devoted to this sort of thing)

I don’t expect actual movie-quality productions to be able to be made through that any time soon, but it holds definite potential. The question would remain whether people would be that it would almost certainly be perpetually behind Pixar. On the other hand, South Park is eons behind The Simpsons. And whereas where movies like Clerks are plot-limited by where they have access to shoot and such, these movies could become far, far less limited. It would be as possible to make a science fiction movie as it would a character drama or comedy, so long as you were willing to invest the time in it.


Category: Theater

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14 Responses to The End of the Movie?

  1. Maria says:

    I’m convinced the solution to the creative movie problem is to bring back some semblance of the old studio system, with contract players and writers, etc.

    It’s the enormous salaries of the “stars” that is creating all the expense.

    Pixar does most of its creative work inhouse and look how successful they are.

  2. trumwill says:

    Even Pixar often hires well-known (and often top-rank) actors, though. They don’t make as much money, of course, but it still strikes me as unnecessary expense. Though their voices sound familiar, half of the time I have to look up who they are. You can get knock-offs for a lot cheaper!

    I think a lot of Pixar’s success comes from making family-oriented movies. Hollywood used to like to talk about how movies were getting more smutty and violent because “that’s what people want to see” but a good portion of the time it’s the G-rated movies that make a mint. Moreso now than then, but even then.

    Like every other TV show taking place in NY and the declaring of the young, hip demographic as being “more important to advertisers”, I think it was one of those things that creative types lead themselves to believe because they’re the kinds of movies that they want to make.

    Up until recently, really expensive movies fell into that category, too, though the bean-counters have been able to demonstrate otherwise. So now it has swung in the other direction.

    In any event, even apart from actors, movies are expensive to make. I think I’ve read an article or two about how big name actors (Will Farrell specifically was mentioned) are taking a hit.

  3. Mike Hunt says:

    If new music and new movies completely disappeared, it wouldn’t bother me in the least.

  4. trumwill says:

    There’s really a lifetime’s worth of both to consume. I’ve found myself really not listening to new music anymore (the subject of a future post, I think). Same with movies, but only because they’ve been replaced by TV. There’s a lifetime’s worth of TV to consume, but not in HD. So what I really need is for TV to chug along for ten more years, then I will probably be set for life.

  5. Meadowlark says:

    There’s really a lifetime’s worth of both to consume.

    Maybe. But ten years from now, look at what’s been created and ask “Would it matter if nothing had come out since 2011?” A lot of the good old stuff is good “for its time.” A lot of good stuff coming out now will be considered the same.

  6. Peter says:

    I think a lot of Pixar’s success comes from making family-oriented movies. Hollywood used to like to talk about how movies were getting more smutty and violent because “that’s what people want to see” but a good portion of the time it’s the G-rated movies that make a mint. Moreso now than then, but even then.

    Well, but … television is heavily censored, there’s absolutely nothing even remotely offensive being shown, yet it’s not as if TV shows are universally noted for their high quality.

  7. Maria says:

    Will: Mainstream studios are also welcome to make family-style G-rated movies like Pixar’s. But they don’t want to risk 40 or 50 or 100 million bucks on a G-rated movie unless it’s got “legs” from another medium, like the Harry Potter or Narnia books.

    I would bet that Pixar keeps costs down and creativity high by using the in-house model, though.

    Under the old studio system, there were B-style movies that were cash cows, like the “Ma and Pa Kettle” movies, the Saturday serials, the “Wallace Beery wrestling picures”, etc., that subdidized the production of more creative and daring fare.

    The studio system also gave writers, artists, actors, etc. a steady paycheck so that they could concentrate on working and developing their abilities, not on hustling investors for bucks.

    William Petersen has a good comment on the state of the industry, as quoted in his profile in the IMDB:

    “I’m a huge “Membership First” guy. It seems to me that all of the artists in all of the unions and guilds are getting screwed. What we’re losing in the SAG contract is the middle class — those who want to be actors and won’t make much money but want to stick with it anyway. The studios and companies, meanwhile, get to have it both ways. They’ve got their $100 million movies where they pay Brad and Tom $20 million and everyone else works for scale. Then those who make the indie movies don’t pay anybody anything. You’re supposed to make 28 cents for the honor of working with Gus Van Sant. But the company behind, say, “Milk,” winds up making a ton. The whole thing is a shell game, a con, and the actors are the ones who wind up getting jobbed.”

  8. trumwill says:

    But they don’t want to risk 40 or 50 or 100 million bucks on a G-rated movie unless it’s got “legs” from another medium, like the Harry Potter or Narnia books.

    None of those movies are rated G, it’s worth noting. The key to Rated-G movies is to keep costs low. We agree on that. Not hiring expensive actors, though, does not appear to be a part of that calculation.

    I would bet that Pixar keeps costs down and creativity high by using the in-house model, though.

    Creativity high? Yes. I think that one of the reasons that they offer the writers and such a regular salary is that it’s required to retain the talent. Most of whom would rather be working on different projects. So you have to offer them something different.

    Costs low? Depends on what we’re talking about. It keeps (computer) animation costs low because once you create the technology, you own it and can use it for future projects. You can do that with special effects in live movies, but those age much more quickly and much more specialized.

    The studio system also gave writers, artists, actors, etc. a steady paycheck so that they could concentrate on working and developing their abilities, not on hustling investors for bucks.

    Yeah, it did. It was a good system for those artists that were included in the system. But it deprived them of their current ability to take advantage of the excess of would-be creative talent willing to work for pennies.

  9. trumwill says:

    Well, but … television is heavily censored, there’s absolutely nothing even remotely offensive being shown, yet it’s not as if TV shows are universally noted for their high quality.

    I disagree with the premise. TV is full of all kinds of risque and even violent stuff. There are hard limitations to what they can do, but they work around it as skillfully as they can.

    Anyway, I’m not saying that the G-rated movies are good. Merely that they make money.

  10. trumwill says:

    Meadowlark,

    Good point, though we won’t know what we’re missing.

  11. Maria says:

    Not hiring expensive actors, though, does not appear to be a part of that calculation.

    The money they save on production costs probably allows them a little lee-way with the vocal talent. But do they really go for top vocal talent a lot?

    The “star” of “UP” for instance was Ed Asner. I can’t imagine that Ed Asner was a very expensive vocal talent. He hasn’t had a steady gig since “Lou Grant.”

    Yeah, it did. It was a good system for those artists that were included in the system. But it deprived them of their current ability to take advantage of the excess of would-be creative talent willing to work for pennies.

    Read Petersen’s quote: Part of the reason why studios want to pay pennies to unknown creative talent is because they are paying GDP-of-small-nation-sized salaries to a handful of “A-list stars” who supposedly can “open” a picture.

    IMHO, “free agency” ruined the movie-making business just as much as it ruined the NFL.

    The old studio system also kept an eye on whackjobs like Lindsay Lohan, who discredit the industry. Would Lindsay Lohan been allowed to destroy herself if she had a full-time contract gig at a major studio? No, they would have put her on suspension until she cleaned up her act.

    The old studio system definitely had its advantages.

  12. David Alexander says:

    Would Lindsay Lohan been allowed to destroy herself if she had a full-time contract gig at a major studio? No, they would have put her on suspension until she cleaned up her act.

    Given that she’s considered uninsurable for any movie production right now, one could argue that there isn’t much of a difference from being suspended from a movie studio.

  13. trumwill says:

    The money they save on production costs probably allows them a little lee-way with the vocal talent. But do they really go for top vocal talent a lot?

    Fair point. When I think of Pixar I think of Toy Story, which was heavy on the expensive actors. I’m not as familiar with their other productions. Other than Despicable Me, which has a somewhat impressive cast.

    Part of the reason why studios want to pay pennies to unknown creative talent is because they are paying GDP-of-small-nation-sized salaries to a handful of “A-list stars” who supposedly can “open” a picture.

    Yeah, but I think that’s only part of the story. As mentioned, the indie films get actors for next to nothing. I don’t think that a return to the studio system would do all that much to bring the salaries of the major players down (once their initial contract expires). The house has left the barn, as far as that goes.

    Has free agency really ruined the NFL? It seems to me that of all the leagues, the NFL is the least friendly to the athletes as far as that goes. They have a number of rules in place to help keep Payton Manning in Indianapolis and so forth.

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