Hollywood’s Counterintuitive Business Model and TV’s Juxtaposition

“You will make a movie called the Rest In Peace Department, and you will get Jeff Bridges to agree to do it!”

When was the last time you were genuinely excited for a movie? Sure, there are movies that contain our favorite stars, which make us (or at least me) think, “It’s (fill-in-the-blank star), he’s not going to take a garbage role.” Unbeknownst to myself, the above dialogue I have is simply me–justifying to myself–why I should retain hope for another failure. But if you’ve been alive this summer, quite the contrary has happened.

The following was the best Hollywood could come up with this summer–a time for the big-budget, big box office projects to lay themselves among the audience:

  • Iron Man 3 (success)
  • After Earth starring Will Smith (failure)
  • Hangover Part III (meh)
  • The Internship (doesn’t qualify as a summer blockbuster, but still just check out my prior review)
  • Man of Steel (OK, but there’s a disclaimer I will get to)
  • World War Z (surprisingly good, naturally expensive)
  • White House Down (Channing Tatum would have been a better pick had this been a musical)
  • The Lone Ranger (*A whistle mimic-ing the sound of Fat Man falling out of the Enola Gay*)
  • Pacific Rim (Blockbuster budget, moderate success)
  • Grown Ups 2 (This is a franchise?)
  • Red 2 (See above parenthetical)
  • R.I.P.D. (Oh come on, now!)
  • Wolverine (Didn’t they make this already?)
  • 2 Guns (moderate success based on exceptional casting)
  • Elysium (Matt Damon probably thinks this is a smart movie)
  • Kick Ass 2  (TBD, but the first was actually pretty good)
  • jOBS (TBD, reviews haven’t been great) 

Time to put on my Captain Hindsight uniform and say there are some serious turds in that bowl. R.I.P.D. are you kidding? I understand that a movie script can, in fact, be well done before it goes through the Hollywood machine, but this is an unforgivable concept. The two sci-fi movies, After Earth and Elysium, both are heavy with the political themes and are no where near living up to expectations. So what does that say about the movie market? Perhaps we don’t want to sit through an editorial disguised as art. But seriously, another Wolverine-based movie? Another Iron Man? Franchises galore. Are we seeing a pattern yet?

There are few auteurs left in the film business. Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight franchise, Inception) is one. His brother wrote Man of Steel, which is why I can hold out hope for that it would be a much more original take on a tried-and-true tale. Peter Berg, the director of films such as The Kingdom and Friday Night Lights, had to make Battleship (god-awful) in order to make his baby, Lone Survivor. Battleship is a Transformers spinoff. Hollywood is addicted to CGI like crack. It cannot stop. It firmly believes that more action set pieces will drive audience interest.

I figured my internal gripes were hipster-like grievances until I started seeing prominent authorities in the industry speak up about it. Steven Spielberg, whose name in the byline of a film title adds a chunk of revenue itself, remarked the following to a group of USC film students:

That’s the big danger, and there’s eventually going to be an implosion — or a big meltdown [in Hollywood]. There’s going to be an implosion where three or four or maybe even a half-dozen megabudget movies are going to go crashing into the ground, and that’s going to change the paradigm.

According to the Huffington Post, “Spielberg lamented that it’s becoming harder and harder for even brand-name filmmakers to get their projects into movie theaters. To wit: “Lincoln,” which was a critical and commercial success for the director, nearly ended up on HBO, he told the audience. Unestablished talent, meanwhile, has run into trouble getting their projects greenlit at all, because their ideas are “too fringe-y” for studios.”

The Economist has cooborated this sentiment by calling Hollywood exectives “paranoid and insecure. Adding, “between 2007 and 2011, pre-tax profits of the five studios controlled by large media conglomerates (Disney, Universal, Paramount, Twentieth Century Fox and Warner Bros) fell by around 40%, says Benjamin Swinburne of Morgan Stanley. He reckons the studios account for less than 10% of their parent companies’ profits today, and by 2020 their share will decline to only around 5%. That is because the “big six” studios (the other is Sony Pictures, owned by the eponymous electronics maker) are growing more slowly than TV. In 2012 Time Warner grossed $12 billion from film, up 20% from 2002. That compares with a more than 84% rise in the company’s TV-network revenues during the period, to $14.2 billion”

George Lucas, who was speaking at the event with Spiellberg, opined, “the pathway to get into theaters is really getting smaller and smaller.”

So Lincoln struggled to get funding but apparently no one was sober enough to shut down R.I.P.D.? Deadline Hollywood recently reported that Spiellberg couldn’t “square his vision of [American Sniper] with [the given] budget.” One would think that if there are any safe bets for a movie to be profitable, having the director of Jaws, Saving Private Ryan, E.T., etc. would certainly help.  Oh, and Bradley Cooper is set to play the lead role. I would go see it, and I’ve reached that age where I frequently give up on movies.

Steven Soderbergh, the director Ocean’s 11/12/13 and HBO’s Behind the Candelabra (among others), ranted about the industry in a speech at the San Francisco film festival:

The meetings have gotten pretty weird. There are fewer and fewer executives who are in the business because they love movies. There are fewer and fewer executives that know movies. So it can become a very strange situation. I mean, I know how to drive a car, but I wouldn’t presume to sit in a meeting with an engineer and tell him how to build one, which is what you feel like when you’re in these meetings. You’ve got people who don’t know movies, 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.

In essence, studios find it necessary to put all their chips on one number to gain 36:1 profits with the reasoning that the movie, once greenlit and successful (two big hurdles) will become a continued (franchised) success. See: Batman, X-Men, Iron Man, Man of Steel, the Hangover, and so on. When these comic book adventure films were a novelty, they were a novelty. That luster has since worn off, and audiences don’t get excited about it. The tried and true method of all great films is having a great narrative, a great, wait for it, story!

“We are a species that is driven by narrative,” Soderbergh added.

Hollywood has abandoned the story ship, and boarded the Battleship. “Special effects are what audiences want,” says the executives whose sole focus is the bottom line. 2 Guns and soon-to-be Lone Survivor star Mark Wahlberg basically agrees. “They are spending so much money to pull the wool over the audience’s eyes with these effects-driven movies,” Wahlberg said.

If you experience anything enough, be it a Prime-cut steak, an exotic vacation, whatever, excess will deteriorate the desire to experience it again. Las Vegas is an adult playground, but if you live there and indulge in the  vices festivities “on the reg” you will inevitably miss the mundane lifestyle of suburban middle America. Jurassic Park was awesome when it first came out. The special effects were mind-blowing. 15 years later, those same effects have been overused. They are simply add-on features to a car. But consumers don’t buy a car for add-on features. They buy a car for transportation. Consumers primarily watch a movie for a strong narrative.

The market for narrative has always been there. Do you want proof? Look no further than cable TV. The Wire, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, Sons of Anarchy, Justified, The Americans, Mad Men. Even the shows with the loftiest budgets still don’t compare to the money pit that is John Carter. TV writers are the ultimate middle manager. They must do more with less. They must create a better story with fewer set pieces or big name actors. Who was John Hamm before Mad Men? Can you watch Elf now and see Peter Dinklage in his original role and not think Tyrion Lannister? Byran Cranston is now synonymous with perhaps the most iconic role in TV, Walter White. These are career defining roles in TV.

If I said this 10 years ago, people would think I’d be crazy (partly because I’d be 14 and my TV apptetite consisted of Carson Daly on TRL), but right now, in 2013, TV programming is much, much better than anything in film.

Vince Gilligan, the brains behind Breaking Bad, had this to say about the difference between TV and film:

I love movies, and I love TV. In TV, you have the time to get deeper into a character, but movies are a two-hour block of time in which we get transported to another place. We’ll always have Paris, and we’ll always have movies. But we’re going through a time, unfortunately, when the big movie studios are run by folks that are more obsessed than ever with the bottom line and who probably love movies less than any studio hierarchy that’s ever existed in my life. Back in the day, when the Irving Thalbergs and Louis B. Mayers ran the business, those guys could bite your head off. Those guys were tough sons of bitches, but they loved movies. They weren’t obsessed with counting beans. The problem with the movie business now is that it’s marketing-driven—driven by demographics, by spreadsheets and flowcharts and all this shit that has nothing to do with storytelling. But the movie itself, the structure of the movie, will always be with us. And occasionally a really great movie for grown-ups does sneak through.

In short, the bottom-line-obsessed executives need to leave art to the artists. AMC was never on my radar until Mad Men and Breaking Bad came out. Now they’ve built a brand which tells their audience they are willing to take a chance on originality. FX did the same when they started out with The Shield and Nip/Tuck. They brought HBO drama to basic cable. As a consequence, TV has proliferated into a medium that has become much more entertaining (and cheaper) than film. TV has undercut film, and it’s filled with irony.

An unexpected twist in this whole debacle is seeing film industry regulars converting to TV. Scorsese serves as an executive producer for Boardwalk Empire. David Fincher worked on House of Cards. Names like Kevin Bacon and Kevin Spacey, once indigenous to film, are migrating to the TV landscape. Creative freedom is something all artists strive for. One must survive, so a paycheck is ultimately more important. But for entertainment’s sake, these artists must not be subjugated to recycled story lines with new tricks.

TV is the best example, but not the only one. Video games have become technological wonders. Developing teams are auteurs in their own right, placing their stamp on masterpieces such as Grand Theft Auto and Metal Gear Solid. The publisher acts as the film industry executives. Call of Duty 4, developed by Infinity Ward and published by Activision, was a mega success. It contained brand new gaming infrastructure, redesigned and streamlined with state-of-the-art gameplay. Yesterday, Infinity Ward (minus two if it’s lead developers) unveiled Call of Duty Ghosts’ multiplayer, which is its first for the upcoming next generation consoles, X Box One and Playstation 4. This is Call of Duty’s sixth iteration since Modern Warfare came out. The innovation is little. They’ve doubled down on what worked before, hoping to fool audiences by using the word “innovation.” Meanwhile, Naughty Dog put out perhaps the generation’s best game in The Last of Us on the Playstation 3, a less powerful machine. Activision, and they are perfectly entitled to this, decided to copy what works to retain their audience. But the reason the game was so successful in the first place was precisely because it was a hallmark for video game innovation.  Unfortunately, innovation looks bleak when the captains of industry are in no hurry to change what works.

 Tom Bissell of Grantland perfectly summarized my point:

[T]he amount of work required to make The Last of Us is basically unimaginable to anyone outside game development. Games with this amount of detail and polish are possible only when dozens of men and women voluntarily elect to damage themselves and their lives for the entertainment benefit of strangers.” He continued, “Sony undoubtedly recognized from the start the hard uphill battle The Last of Us had in front of it, which means the game was probably intended as a prestige project done both for the good of the medium and to burnish studio and platform pride. Obviously, that’s a somewhat cynical way of looking at things. Less cynical would be to say, ‘The Last of Us is a masterpiece.'”

The writing is on the wall. Now if only those who wield the green flame can read it. And we, as consumers, aren’t completely innocent. We must better speak our minds via the mighty dollar.