Friday, June 14, 2013

HOW MOVIES CAN COUNTER THE DIRE WARNINGS FROM STEVEN SPIELBERG AND GEORGE LUCAS


On Wednesday of this week, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were at USC helping to open a new Interactive Media Building. There they made some very troubling comments regarding the future of the movie industry (http://bit.ly/ZKg2Pp). Unfortunately, they see a future where big movies like IRON MAN and other tent pole features are going to cost moviegoers upwards of $25 to view in theaters. And they envision movies like LINCOLN becoming relegated to places like HBO. All in all, they foresee an “implosion” in the film industry as costs rise while TV takes greater risks and succeeds more with niche audiences.

They may be right, but does that have to be so? The threat of TV siphoning away audiences from the film industry has been fretted about since the small tube’s beginnings, yet both have survived and thrived. So why is there a difference now? One could argue that it’s due to TV’s new ‘Golden Age’ of shows that put most features to shame. So isn’t the answer to make better movies? Part of the problem is thinking that movies have to be gargantuan for audiences to trek to the Cineplexes, but that’s myopic thinking.  If studios executives think audiences only want to see $200 million fantasies or superhero sequels on the big screen, then they deserve their woe-begotten fates.

It doesn’t have to be so. Movies can get back their luster, keep audiences enraptured, and make plenty of money for everyone involved. In fact, there are at least six obvious measures that movie studios can start doing now to stem the tide of those cryptic warnings from Spielberg and Lucas.


Make smaller movies
This year, JACK THE GIANT SLAYER was released and reportedly cost $195 million to make. Whew! And estimates for its marketing budget were supposedly another $100 million. Ultimately, its worldwide gross was just under $200 million. I really liked the movie, but aesthetics aside, that’s not a lot of ROI. Now, take Woody Allen’s movie MIDNIGHT IN PARIS which cost just $17 million to make in 2011 and grossed $155 million. (It played at Chicago’s Landmark Century Theater for almost 4 straight months!) That film was the better investment for Hollywood, so why not make more of those? It was aimed at an older adult audience too, not teenagers. That older audience will come out for movies - good movies. And as if there weren't enough surprises with that film's success, Allen's comedy also happened to be primarily a period piece. Most studio exec’s regard those as no-no's for modern audiences, but that is not the case, is it? It would seem there a number of ways that thinking needs to be adjusted in those corner offices.

Stop making so many sequels
I love Robert Downey Jr. but I’ve seen him play Iron Man in four starring vehicles in the last five years. My adoration of Hugh Jackman as Wolverine is considerable but he’s starred as the hirsute hero five times since 2000. Do we need that much of either character? Especially when there are other Kirk Lazarus’ and Jean Valjean’s to be played out there? And each sequel tries to top the previous movie, so the price tags go up and up. That is a self-fulfilling prophecy of doom, no?

Take a page from the horror genre
The young Turks making horror movies are doing so mostly with smaller budgets. And horror very often doesn’t need a lot of high-priced razzle and dazzle to hold an audience’s attention. Filmmakers like Adam Wingard (THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL) and Tim Tjahjanto (MACABRE) have shown they can consistently work wonders with miniscule budgets. 

Other places are showing how smart budgeting can still produce good films, even genre pictures and period movies. Mads Mikkelsen and Jeffrey Dean Morgan just made a western called THE STRANGER for writer/director Kristian Levring for less than 15 million, according to imdb.com (http://imdb.to/163GtjO). And those crews toiling in the ad industry have been finding ways to keep costs down and even shoot offshore to do so for decades now. Can’t big studios follow those examples more often for their movies? Of course they can. 


Pay stars reasonably
Warner Bros. dumped the long gestating sequel to DUMB & DUMBER this week (http://bit.ly/16f9xWx) and that’s sad news for Jim Carrey fans. Time was, he could command $20 million for a picture, but even a decade ago that seemed exorbitant. No one wants to deny big stars big bucks, particularly if they’re bringing in the audiences, but out-of-control salaries for top actors are crippling productions. And did such salary demands have anything to do with Warner Bros. saying, "No"? Maybe, maybe not, but these days it's more of a buyer's market, and some price tags are too high for the studios that used to say "Yes" to such things. Keep hiring stars, just do it for more reasonable amounts. Everyone else in the country has learned to live with a little less these days so can’t Hollywood’s superstars learn to live with just a little less too? 


Special effects aren't always so special 
How many spaceships do we need to see crash into earth? How many fantasy films with 400 plus CGI effects are audiences truly clamoring for? And don’t teens always think stuff looks fake anyway? Look, when an outstanding company like Rhythm and Hues goes out of business right after doing their Academy Award-winning work for LIFE OF PI due to not making money on the venture, something is very wrong with how the industry is utilizing special effects. I loved LIFE OF PI, but the story of the demise of Rhythm and Hues is a tragic one, and it shouldn't be repeated.

Happy Meals don't make great scripts
Too many budgets (again with the superhero sequels) spend more on co-op dollars than on spending time getting the script right. If the movie needs a fast food franchise or dozens of other product placement tie-ins to even meet budget muster, maybe the project is too costly. I don’t mind product placement, but if half of any movie’s cost is covered by such partnerships, isn't something amiss? 

Take a page from TV shows
TV shows do a number of things that movies would behoove to follow. First, by and large, they’re driven by strong stories with strong characters, not special effects and CGI. Two, TV shows are writers’ shows, and the screenplay needs to be more of the thing on film, not so much a ‘high concept’. Finally, TV audiences may be niche, but I watch BATES MOTEL and HOMELAND and MODERN FAMILY too. I like comic books as much as the next fan boy, but I expect more variety at my Cineplex. Put more types of films in the theaters and more audiences will come.

Look, we're already paying close to 15 bucks to see 3-D movies in some places. And with parking and concessions, movie viewers are already used to opening their wallets - wide. But audiences shouldn’t have to pay 25 dollars a ticket to see a superhero movie or a tent pole film. And we should be able to find a much better variety of entertainment at the Cineplex too. The movie industry can do it. They've made it through depressions, recessions and new media before. It just takes some creative and practical thinking. Let’s just hope they're smart enough business folks to not cut off their audience to spite their face.

8 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  2. Jeff, you should obviously be running Hollywood. Let me know if you need a PA.

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  3. Thanks, David! If the screenwriting thing doesn't work out for me, that's my new pursuit in Tinsel Town!

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  4. To view "Life of Pi" on the small screen, and miss the stunning cinematography eye candy on the big screen, is nothing short of a travesty!!!! And give me 10 movies like "Silver Linings Playbook" or even "Crazy Stupid Love" and I will run, not walk, to the cineplex!

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  5. I agree with you Unknown, you have to watch LIFE OF PI on the big screen. And the special effects there were indeed special. I just wish that the company that won the Oscar for the job was able to sustain their business. A loss for the industry. A loss for moviegoers. And I'd rather see a studio make ten smaller movies like a SILVER LINING PLAYBOOK each year too, instead of sinking so much $$$ in sequels. Thankfully, we have the Weinsteins.

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  6. Great solutions to Hollywood's biggest problems ~ Thanks, Jeff!!
    Here's the rise & fall story of Rhythm and Hues ~ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rhythm_and_Hues_Studios
    ~ sad... :(

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  7. Thanks, Anonymous. Glad you liked the thoughts. And thanks for the article. Fascinating story. Sad, but fascinating.

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