Film Fund-amentals: Can Hollywood Be Saved?

Obviously my knee jerk response is to say no. But that tends to be my knee jerk response to many things. Twenty years of fatherhood does that to a guy.

However, the question is being raised in many quarters. During the past year there has been a virtual parade of articles ranging from a CNBC piece on the end of movie studios to critic Andrew O’Hehir’s speculations on the death of film culture, along with Keanu Reeves’ view on the death of analog film-making and numerous pronouncements by the British and European press. Almost every component of the industry has received its own obituary. You would think that the Mayan Apocalypse just happened and Southern California has vanished into a giant wormhole from outer space.

Which might as well be the case. Between the faltering box office, the digital revolution, the sky rocketing production costs, and the creative dead end of the modern Hollywood film industry, some studio executives must feel like they are simply waiting for an asteroid to impact at Hollywood and Vine. Even to look on the bright side involves the somewhat laborious task of finding it.

There’s an old saying that there’s nothing wrong with the movie industry that good pictures can’t cure. However, the widely noted end of creativity in modern Hollywood suggests that the “good pictures” are all long gone. At the very least, it seems like a slim prospect unless it is a original approach to an old idea (for example the remake of True Grit).

Besides, this notion begs an answer to another question: What is good?

One would like to think that high aesthetic quality has some type of eternal placement (“O sages standing in God’s holy fire”). But commercially, the real standards have to do with the infinitely more transient tastes of an ever shifting audience. Sure, I am comparing apples with oranges but you can’t sell oranges to an audience hungry for apples. It is possible that certain recent movies, like Tree of Life, may eventually be viewed as a major cinematic classic. But right now,  a film like The Hangover is the more highly esteemed audience favorite. To use the standard misquote of the other old poetic line: “Behold, ye mighty, and despair.”

An odd assortment of folks are firmly convinced that a return to solid family values will vastly improve the box office. Granted, a certain amount of reasonably decent-to-extremely good box office has been generated by various animated family films. But that is about it. The commercial patterns really don’t favor this theory and it all feels more like a bit of wish fulfillment. There is clear evidence that a certain amount of films made on a low to modest budget and pitched to an older audience has some strong possibilities (for example, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel). But the “family value” market doesn’t quite exist, at least not in the manner that some people might think. The whole concept of the modern American family is under going such a massive sociological change that no one is really sure what that term really means these days.

Since I have mentioned the track record for animated movies, it should also be noted that animated films in 3D have provided the one solid return for the 3D process. Just a few years ago, 3D was suppose to be the salvation of Hollywood. Fortunately, most folks have moved past that false assumption. Digital 3D has paved the way for many major changes in the industry, but instant box office success hasn’t been part of the picture. Except for animated movies. A lot of people like cartoons in 3D. It really isn’t enough to save Hollywood, but it certainly keeps Disney in a hopeful mood.

The switch to digital production and distribution is suppose to save Hollywood. OK, it threatens to completely destroy the independent film exhibitor market. But it also offers a vast reduction in the cost of distribution that would be a major plus to indies if only the major companies would let them use it. Likewise, digital production is suppose to lower the otherwise exorbitant cost of modern movie making. But the major theaters and distributors are not too interested in loosening control over the emerging digital distribution system. As for production cost, it is simply the nature of Hollywood to bloat the budget no matter what. These boys could be making flip books and it will still cost over $200 million.

Which sort of brings us back to our question about Hollywood.

I suppose anything can happen. However, I truly and very deeply doubt it. Most of the economic and business structure of the mainstream film industry is elaborately designed to produce the kind of negative and largely self-destructive results that are currently predominate. Within the industry, there does not appear to be any meaningful interest in pursuing any type of significant change or reform to this system. Mostly, the industry is focused on how to suppress innovation and find various ways to achieve ownership control over digital processes in a determined effort to monopolize the new systems.

Most likely, these efforts will fail. Attempting to control the digital future is a bit like playing Whac-A-Mole. Buy out one company and twenty more upstarts appear. Which is OK. If Hollywood were successful in controlling it, they would undoubtedly choke the life out of it.

But either way, the mainstream film industry is over. Oh sure, the Fat Lady has yet to sing. However, she is warming up in the wings.

Wagner, any one?