Film Fund-amentals: So Many Game Changers, So Little Time

Everybody is looking for the next game changer — something radically new that is pretty obvious and doesn’t necessarily alter anything, but that is still a clear indicator of future developments and concisely changes the whole structure of the industry while not exactly changing anything. In other words, a major revolution that magically reinforces the status quo. Unfortunately, revolutions don’t really work that way, which is one reason why the concept of a “game changer” is pretty lame.

Mostly, “game changers” are meaningless PR concepts.  The phrase is so vacuous that it ought to be banned from public discourse. But reporters like the term, and we are being whacked with the latest stories about game changers in film production. And remember, we need to pay attention to these things because some day there may actually be a “game changer” that actually results in some type of change.

For example, the recent news story about how actor Colin Hanks has just raised $50,000 through Kickstarter for his indie documentary about the rise and fall of Tower Records. It is a reasonably impressive achievement, especially since Hanks has successfully adapted to a mix of social networking sites and crowdfunding techniques.  Also of interest is the suspicion that his father (some guy named Tom) may be quietly following in his son’s footsteps while looking at prospects for some modestly budgeted projects.

Contrary to the Huffington Post news story, this really isn’t a “game changer.” Crowdfunding has already proven itself despite a generally dismissive attitude  from the mainstream film industry.  What Colin Hanks does represent is a significant (if through the back door) crack in the Hollywood mindset.

But the Hollywood attitude may need more than a few cracks. Just look at the short but furious history of 3D. Just over a year ago, 3D was going to save Hollywood. Two months ago, it was the doom of the industry. With the release of Transformers: Dark of the Moon, 3D is once again the magic game changer that will fix everything. The flipflops are quick enough to give us all whiplash (heck, I’ve already filed a workers’ comp claim).

Once again, the reality is a little less. The new Transformers movie has done extremely well, especially in its IMAX 3D presentation. It is the biggest box office hit of an otherwise dismal season.  But it is still running behind the box office of the previous sequel, despite having a much more advantageous opening weekend (let’s be honest, this movie actually had a five-day long opening weekend). So yes, the new Transformers flick is crushing everything in sight.  Too bad everything was already being crushed by the vast drop (20+ percent) in the American box office. It is a drop that will undoubtedly continue with or without 3D.

Flipflopping is an old Hollywood art form, and the speed with which the game changers can change the game is measured by the quick pursuit and rapid abandonment of Comic Con. Last year, Hollywood barn-stormed this annual fest of geekdom with enough celebrities and special previews to turn the event into a comic book version of Cannes. This year, the studios are treading lightly as they toss a few obvious bones to the fanboys and otherwise keep an unusually low profile.

Since Hollywood is heavily committed to making mega-buck movies based on comic books and video games, Comic Con would have to be a no-brainier for promotion. However, Hollywood has discovered two alarming things. Fanboys are extremely picky about how you adapt their heroes. Even worse, a movie that is a hit with the Comic Con crowd doesn’t necessarily mean anything to a regular audience. Arguably, an interesting chunk of the current drop at the box office is reflected by the sagging ticket sales for comic book movies.

This doesn’t mean that Hollywood is about to abandon the approach. Heck, comic book adaptions are clogging up the current production pipeline so much that it will take the end of civilization in 2012 to change this strategy (maybe). Instead, the studios are looking to desert the only innate audience that they even have for these type of flicks. Sure, none of this makes any sense, but by now we all know that logic has nothing to do with it.

This may be best demonstrated by the greatest game changer of the week. As part of their weird war against Netflix, a collection of major studios conducted a test run of their own version of a premium VoD (now known as PVoD). So far, this experiment in releasing recent movies (within 60 days of their theatrical release) to VoD distribution at a price tag of $30 a pop may not actually be producing fantastic results (the little bit of information that has leaked out does not suggest a rip-snorting success story). Besides, with the possibility of accessing many of the same titles via Netflix at $9.99 a month, most people would be willing to wait a little longer to see a movie that they were not willing to see for full price in the first place.

That was the case until Netflix decided to up its own prices. The new rental structure is still modest compared to the studio concept of home entertainment. But the current economic forecast (which is bad) would seem to argue against any undue rise in prices. This move by Netflix is bound to change something, but the change could be their bottom line. 2011 has actually been a very good year for the company, but that has been based on a marketing plan that they are slowly altering.

This is either a bold move or a major misstep. After all, game changers can go either way.