Film Fund-amentals: Recession Proof or 100 Proof?

For the past several months, there has been the steady drum beat proclaiming that despite the current economic crisis, the film industry remains recession proof. The reason is simple…. Oddly enough, this is when the drummers go silent and start praying for the brass section to cut loose with a nifty fanfare.

Unfortunately, the brass section was laid off last week, and even the piccolo players are soused and drowning their sorrows with a bottle of the only proof that is currently holding steady.

Yes, the notion that the film industry is recession-proof is a myth. Much like Santa Claus, it is fun to believe in. Unlike Santa Claus, it will never inspire any cute poems or fun songs or sweet cookies. Instead, it simply obstructs discussion and makes murky some very basic issues.

The myth exists because of a deeply flawed understanding of history. During the Great Depression, the Hollywood studios pretty much survived intact and, seemingly, business boomed. Like all great half-truths, this is just part of the real picture. Too bad half-truths don’t add up to much.

In reality, the old Hollywood system was a vertical and horizontal monopoly that allowed it to operate with an extremely successful grip on the industry. Yet by 1933, film attendance dropped by nearly 40 percent. Suddenly, the old studio moguls realized there was a depression going on (they were actually oblivious until then). Ticket prices were lowered, dishware was handed out as a freebie, and movies underwent a radical shift as the flapper age of the 1920s gave way to the working class toughness of the 1930s.

So yes, Hollywood survived. But it also became very, very different.

Today, there are really no studios. Instead of a monopoly, we have conglomerates — vast, faceless, interlaced companies spread out across the globe with holdings in a wide variety of businesses. These media empires are suppose to sail through turbulent waters without a noticeable bounce. This is another myth — more like the Easter Bunny, only the eggs are not boiled and make for a heck of a mess when cracked.

The current economic crisis is affecting so many different sections of the entertainment industry at once that the conglomerate structure is proving more vulnerable rather than resistant (e.g. the way Fox is paying for the failure of its overseas television division, or even the way Disney is paying for almost every other part of its empire). Instead of providing reinforcement, the multiple components of the corporate structure have begun feeding off of each other in a desperate bid to survive. Meanwhile, senior executives and producers grab at virtually any gimmick in hope that it will provide the magic touch. Yesterday, it was the tent pole movie. Then the return of 3-D. Tomorrow, it will probably be movies produced and delivered through the human DNA structure (I’m not sure I’m actually making this one up).

But what is really going to happen is very simple to guess: budgets will have to come down. Plain and simple. Sure, many in Hollywood still think that big budgets are the way to go, which in Vegas circles is called doubling-down. It never works, and merely means there are a lot of folks about to line up for a 12-step program. Personally, I hope to be running it — I hear these things are profitable.

The reduced budgets mean that increasingly movies will have to be smaller, not bigger, and just maybe will have to appeal to something more than 12-year-old boys. This means getting back to basics. Things like scripts (with actual plots, maybe) and actors (that is, people who can actually perform scripts), and maybe, just maybe, subjects that have some passing relationship to reality as we know it (though that may be asking for too much).

In many respects, I am describing the European model. Oddly enough, some of the financial players in the European system are the only ones who act as if they have read a newspaper lately. They’re looking at the market as extremely tight but manageable if approached in this direction. They’re looking at new models and, more importantly, they’re taking a focused, reality-based approach to the changes being forced upon the market.

On the other hand, Hollywood is still focused on big and bigger. That won’t work (it never does), but it’s the only current notion that’s given any credence — that and the near mindless drive to do remakes (oops, I mean re-imaging) of old TV series (it has just been announced that there will finally be a big-screen version of Father Knows Best — by the way, I’m quite aware that I’m one of the few people alive and cogitative who even recalls what this 1950s series was about).

It will change, but it will take time. Perhaps a very long time. Meanwhile, the ship of fools sails gaily against the historic wave.

— Dennis Toth