“You’re talking about Steven Spielberg and George Lucas can’t get their movie into a theater.” Actually, that’s George Lucas doing the talking. It was Wednesday, the occasion was the opening of the new Interactive Media Building at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, and Paul Bond was on hand for the Hollywood Reporter. Steven Spielberg was there, too, predicting an “implosion” of the film industry as we know it, triggered by a succession of “half dozen or so” $250 million flops. Bond: “What comes next—or even before then—will be price variances at movie theaters, where ‘you’re gonna have to pay $25 for the next Iron Man, you’re probably only going to have to pay $7 to see Lincoln.’ [Spielberg] also said that Lincoln came ‘this close’ to being an HBO movie instead of a theatrical release. George Lucas agreed that massive changes are afoot, including film exhibition morphing somewhat into a Broadway play model, whereby fewer movies are released, they stay in theaters for a year and ticket prices are much higher.”
These remarks have, of course, sparked a wide range of commentary. Flavorwire‘s Jason Bailey, for example, finds them downright “infuriating” as they come…
from the two men who are, it could be argued, more personally responsible than anyone for the current state of the business. The last great era of studio backing for “really interesting, deeply personal” movies [the kind Spielberg said on Wednesday it was becoming increasingly difficult to make] was the 1970s, when the majors were funding the likes of The Godfather, Chinatown, The Conversation, Five Easy Pieces, A Clockwork Orange, All the President’s Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Nashville, and even Lucas’s own American Graffiti. And the overwhelming, record-breaking success of two movies brought that era to an end: Steven Spielberg’s Jaws and George Lucas’s Star Wars. Their films, with their giant grosses and something-for-everyone style, ended up putting their ‘70s contemporaries like Robert Altman, Hal Ashby, William Friedkin, Peter Bogdanovich, Francis Ford Coppola, and Martin Scorsese all but out of business…. When Altman and Ashby and Friedkin couldn’t get their movies into a theater because of Spielberg and Lucas, no problem. But now that the chickens have come home to roost, these guys have noticed the sky is falling.
HitFix‘s Drew McWeeney counters, arguing that “there’s a world of difference between the films that launched Lucas and Spielberg to the top of the business and the films that show up in our theaters week after week right now, and trying to claim that these guys were the ones who lowered the bar does a disservice to the films they made and to the conversation that’s worth having about the way decisions are made at the studio level today. No matter what success George Lucas eventually had with Star Wars, when he made it, there was nothing about the film that was a guaranteed easy hit. He was not adapting an existing piece of material. He was paying homage to what was essentially a dead form at the time, the space opera serials, and he started production on the film not even sure it was technically possible for him to finish it. And Jaws was hardly a guaranteed success for Spielberg, who spent most of the shoot so famously stressed out that it’s amazing he finished it.” What’s more, McWeeney adds, even the blockbusters the pair made following their breakthroughs (excepting Spielberg’s 1941) were modestly budgeted relative to today’s tentpole movies.
“Unlike Spielberg, perhaps, I have cherished the dream of this ‘implosion’ since I was old enough to think about movies in a serious way,” writes Nick Pinkerton at Sundance Now, “for it is very often in such moments of decadence, when the holders of purse-strings are driven into a panic by the sudden failure of reliable formula, that art may have its day. You do not have the risky career of a Sondheim, for example, until the Great White Way has been abandoned for a combat zone.”
Indiewire television critic Alison Willmore is among the many that have noted that the remarks are “not unlike what Steven Soderbergh expressed in his San Francisco State of Cinema address—studios are only really interested in funding tentpole content, and niche programming on internet and cable is the future for everything else.” And of course, Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra, while opening in theaters in the UK, skipped the US theatrical release and went straight to HBO. Alison: “Both Lucas and Spielberg pointed toward cable as being able to have more interesting, risk-taking programming than the multiplex because the measure of success is not tied to pulling in a mass audience. ‘All you need is a million people,’ said Lucas. ‘Which in the aggregate of the world is not very many people.'”
Chuck Tryon suggests that Hollywood’s implosion is made less likely by the fact that “box-office bombs are often balanced with low-risk successes such as The Purge, which has made $43 million so far on a budget of $3 million (not to mention all of the countless Paranormal Activity sequels). Thus, suggesting that studios ‘would rather’ focus solely on making big-budget films misses the mark considerably…. But what’s most perplexing from my point of view is the discussion of (1) the future of moviegoing and (2) the culture of videogames.” Lucas’s Broadway model for moviegoing “seems counterintuitive at best…. [E]vent screenings depend on scarcity models, not on long-term access.” And point #2:
Spielberg argued–somewhat oddly–that video games had failed to create any characters with which the player could feel “empathy.” Lucas echoed this claim by suggesting that the next revolutionary video game would be one aimed at girls and that would mix action with an “empathetic” character making it the “Titanic of video games.” While I’m not an avid gamer, empathy in games seems to be beside the point. That’s not to suggest that a game can’t be used to tell a powerful story, but their accounts of gaming seem to discount (or outright ignore) many of the pleasures–especially the social aspects of online, multiplayer games–of gaming.
At Film.com, Laremy Legel argues that an implosion “is definitely coming, but it’s not going to happen because of the $250 million dollar flops, it’s going to happen because of the mid-level flops, which, in the aggregate, are much more devastating to a studio’s bottom line.” Number-crunching follows. And Lucas’s Broadway model? “If anything, home video windows will shrink, and you’ll see huge movies stay in theaters less than a week.” More numbers. And games? “If anything, movies and games are becoming far more similar” but “games push the envelope far more often.”
Update, 6/16: “So how did we get here?” producer Lynda Obst asks former News Corp. president Peter Chernin, “who is now building his own media empire at Fox.” Chernin: “The movie business, the historical studio business, if you put all the studios together, runs at about a ten percent profit margin. For every billion dollars in revenue, they make a hundred million dollars in profits. That’s the business, right? The DVD business represented fifty percent of their profits. Fifty percent. The decline of that business means their entire profit could come down between forty and fifty percent for new movies.” Obst: “It hit me like a rock in the face. The loss of DVDs for our business had created a desperate need for a new area of growth. This was why the international market has become so important a factor in creative decisions, like casting and what movies the studios make. We sat in mournful silence for a second before I realized that Peter probably had to take a call from China and I should go home and take a Xanax.”
Updates, 6/19: “The system has already changed, and left Spielberg behind,” writes the New Yorker‘s Richard Brody. “Most of the best Hollywood directors aren’t depending on studio greenlights but are working with independent producers who may not be putting up budgets as large as those that formerly came from studios—but, in exchange, the directors are enjoying more freedom and making extreme movies. The ages of radical cinema—whether in Hollywood in the 1950’s, in France in the 1960’s, or in the United States now—are heydays of independent producers…. In France, the king’s coin offers the industry some shelter from risk, but threatens to become a sort of mandatory bear hug—a protection racket that admits no exceptions, not even its own cultural ones. Here, the absence of financial protection (voluntary or not) leaves all filmmakers, rich and poor alike, equally free, so to speak, to film under the bridges, which turns out to be where some terrific movies are being made.”
Meantime, at the Los Angeles Film Festival, a batch of industry folk who’ve recently made the Indiewire Influencers list discussed Spielberg’s remarks on Monday: “With panelists currently embroiled in the process of addressing changes to the marketplace of independent film, the reactions to this statement revolved less around the veracity of Spielberg’s statement and instead focused on what kinds of models may come next.”
Update, 6/20: R. Colin Tait introduces a roundtable discussion: “Antenna has indulged me in the assembly of a ‘blockbuster’ team of scholars and historians (Brenda Austin-Smith, Chuck Tryon, Tom Schatz, and Alisa Perren) each of whom has their own take on the recent events. Instead of allowing the increasingly uniform view of the ‘Implosion’ of Hollywood to take hold, our intention is to generate more conversation to frame these rather dire pronouncements within their proper context.”
Update, 6/22: Forbes contributor Scott Mendelson is cautiously optimistic:
Just over the last two months, we’ve had the likes of Iron Man 3 and Monsters University, but also a big-budget version of The Great Gatsby, a low-budget original horror film like The Purge, and a moderately-budgeted all-star caper Now You See Me, all of which will be very profitable. And in the art house scene, we’ve seen the likes of Mud, Before Midnight, Frances Ha, The Bling Ring, and The Place Beyond the Pines. Every weekend there are countless would-be art films that open in limited release. Some of them, like The Spectacular Now in August, will likely expand into quasi-wide release, some of them will be available on Video On Demand before or during their theatrical release, and all of them will eventually be able to be seen on DVD or VOD for those who missed out in theaters. They got made, they will make money, and they will likely be seen by every single person who wants to see them in one viewing format or another.
Update, 6/29: “Is the way we make movies unsustainable? Is the system fundamentally broken, or just changing into something new? And why don’t we make romantic comedies anymore?” These and other questions are discussed by screenwriters John August and Craig Mazin in their latest Scriptnotes podcast.
Update, 6/30: Lynda Obst is a guest on the Leonard Lopate Show, talking about “what has stalled the moviemaking machine [and] how studios’ dependency on foreign markets impacts the kind of movies that get made.” Her book, Sleepless in Hollywood: Tales from the New Abnormal in the Movie Business, “is, in part, a lament for her inability to get her kind of movies into production anymore,” writes David Edelstein, introducing his conversation with Obst for New York. Obst notes that “when we had that DVD cushion—big hits paid for smaller movies. But now that big hits cost so much, big hits pay for more would-be big hits. And everything else lies dormant.”
Update, 7/1: Colin Brown, Editorial Director of Slated.com, for Indiewire: “Talk to individual film financiers—as opposed to the brokers, managers, analysts and other intermediaries who collectively dictate Hollywood’s risk-mitigating strategies—and the surprise is how open so many are to backing even the most idiosyncratic visions. They are fully prepared to take creative risks and would happily entertain the prospect of working with many of the same talents now feeling marginalized—so long as they enjoyed equal access to projects at a stage when it makes most sense to invest. In this regard, the film industry may well be its own worst enemy.”