Film Fund-amentals: Is the Party Over?

My goodness! If one were to believe all the news reports, it would appear that the entire motion picture industry has just fallen into the Pacific and sunk slowly beneath the waves. Gee gosh golly, what’s wrong with everybody? Last I heard, Variety and the MPAA were telling everybody that everything was okey dokey.

OK, as some of us already knew, they were simply bluffing. Yes, it really isn’t okey dokey. In fact, it is getting kind of poopy out there. Just look at all of the senior executives currently cleaning out their desks. The first round (and I do mean it’s only the beginning) has already hit hard, and the headlines are taking on all of the subtlety of a news report on a mob massacre.

In an article slyly titled “Bloodbath in Hollywood,” the British newspaper The Independent details the major firings and layoffs at Universal Pictures, Disney, Paramount and MGM. Along with the shake-ups at the majors, there are also massive layoffs hitting both New Line (which was already in the process of being thoroughly gutted) and Miramax, which is being cut so severely that it really doesn’t seem possible that it can survive much longer. Add in Sony’s decision to put a freeze on new movie and script development and you can almost hear the opening bars of “Brother Can You Spare a Dime.”

Much the same is covered by the Los Angeles Times in their story “Hollywood Studios in Midst of Their Own Horror Show.” Along with the usual growing lists of rolling heads, the reporters at the LA Times further note that the basic pattern of budget management issues within Hollywood does not exactly seem to be getting addressed.

Budget management? Are you kidding? No way. Despite all the pink slips and collapsing projects, I can assure you that virtually no one in Hollywood thinks the actual system is a problem. It doesn’t matter how many executives they fire; the faces all change but the game plan stays the same. How else can you explain the bizarre yin and nutty yang of Disney’s move to gut Miramax while also blowing $4 billion on its purchase of Marvel Comics? Disney’s logic is simple: Instead of building a rational line of medium-budget productions that might be able to function in a decent self-sustaining manner, they would rather double-down on the production of comic-based tent pole movies in the hope that one of these suckers will actually score over $600 million at the box office (and maybe, just maybe, break even). This pathetic form of drunken logic is still treated as holy writ in the executive offices.

If this mindset is a tad baffling, then check out Bill Mechanic’s speech at last month’s Independent Film & Television Production Conference. As the former head honcho of Fox Filmed Entertainment and the current owner of the indie company Pandemonium, Mechanic has covered the range. So it pays to listen when he notes that “…Hollywood in the broadest sense of the word is much like Detroit. It’s a manufacturer’s mentality that reigns….” Odd, when I made this same observation early this year, a couple of people insisted that I didn’t know what I was talking about.

But Mechanic is right. Hollywood is still hell bent on dumping the small, fuel-efficient vehicles for the Hummer, and the current round of executive firings will not change this course in any way whatsoever. As far as the major studios are concerned, the small indie movies are dead. The future belongs to big things that blow up even bigger, and all in Imax 3-D because teenage boys will pay to see this, maybe. Then again, maybe not. But that isn’t the point. Hollywood likes stuff that blows up big in Imax 3-D, and that is all that matters.

Unless we are talking about the 94 percent of all moviegoers who are now accessing information (and increasingly watching) movies online, according to the recently released Stradella Road report. Though the main focus of the study was on how people locate information about movies, the results also strongly argue that the web is becoming a crucial factor, period — so crucial that many Hollywood insiders are bellyaching about unfair competition from this seemingly uncontrollable force and why can’t somebody do something about this state of chaotic public activity. I mean, gee whiz, it’s like people go online and act as if they should be able to do whatever they want or something.

Trust me (or if not me, then trust Bill Mechanic), this is pretty much what the senior folks in Hollywood think, despite all reasons to the contrary. How else can you explain the increasingly nutty moves against the Internet by Rupert Murdoch? (Well, he is actually on the attack against the net, China, the BBC, Obama and just about everything else.) In many regards, he and the rest of the corporate pack are like the walking dead, bent on mindlessly devouring everything in their path. No wonder zombie movies are making such a major comeback.

So, in a sense, the party is over for indie films. The major studios are cutting them off. They’re closing the doors and throwing everybody out. Which is a little bit like being thrown off the Titanic before it left port. Most of the clear-cut profit-making movies of this year have all been small (or smallish) productions ranging from Paul Bartel to Paranormal Activity. Meanwhile, Loser’s Row is jammed with so many big-ticket items that it’s beginning to look like a major pile-up at the Rolls Royce factory.

Which also means that the party may just be starting. In certain respects, successful small-budget films are currently paying the bills racked up by bloated productions. The major studios are becoming the dead weight, not the indie filmmakers. So what exactly is being lost?