Toward 2014, Step One

It is easy to dismiss John Landis recent comments about Hollywood (see the IndieWire story) as sour grapes.  After all, his last movie (Burke and Hare) earned $947 at the US box office ($4.3 million internationally).  Heck, I even know a few people who are still complaining about Blues Brothers 2000.  

Unfortunately, he is also right.  There are no film studios any more.  They are media companies.  In turn, they are owned by large media conglomerates.  Those are owned by gigantic multinational corporations who in turn own about two-thirds of the planet, more or less.

Likewise, making movies is not part of the function of the major film companies.  Not really.  Making movies imply a creative process.  Large companies are not interested in vague  notions like the creative process.  Large companies are involved in ownership.  They cannot own an idea (though God knows they are trying to redefine copyright laws in order to do so).  But they can own a product such as Batman.  They own and they sell.  The rest is immaterial.

Most of the major media companies are more focused on controlling distribution than they are on making movies.  The process of distribution is undergoing many extreme and rapid changes.  The major companies want to control every possible aspect of these changes.  That is why they are busy making heavy handed moves – both financial and legal – into digital distribution.  Ironically, they are making fewer movies and need more ways of selling less.

In turn, most major mainstream commercial movies are pretty much all the same.  They are simply standardized products cranked out by a corporate process.  A few directors (for example Christopher Nolan) can add some minor personal touches, but it is limited.  That is why most modern big budget flicks have weirdly cannibalized from other movies (for example, all of the “borrowings” used in Star Trek: Into Darkness – is it just me or was there a whole scene lifted from Godfather III for crying out loud).

To an overwhelming degree, the creative forces (such as directors, writers etc.) have no ownership in the process.  Even some amount of the producers have no real ownership, though they are often unwilling to admit this inconvenient fact.  The owners are much further up the corporate ladder.  In fact they are so far up the ladder that the issue gets a little murky.  But they are there, somewhere.  Every one else functions as mere laborers in a factory of dreams.

So Landis is pretty accurate in his observations.  However,  it should be noted that this isn’t exactly a new situation.  Movies have always been a business.  In mainstream Hollywood, art has always been a coincidence.  Virtually everything that is currently wrong with the modern system (such as the over reliance on sequels and remakes) is rooted in traditional production practices.  The only difference is that there use to be venues for alternatives.  Old school Hollywood use to spread its bets along a diverse range of titles.  Now, they just double-down on one or two items.

There are no more alternatives in this system.  Certainly not in terms of money invested by the major companies.  The tent pole model has become the industry standard not because it works but because it consumes vast financial resources.  Oh sure, it also produces large box office returns but those returns barely covers the production cost (in many cases).  These movies would barely break even in theatrical release and then make profit in  DVD.  Increasingly, they don’t.

It’s a high stake game that involves multiple complex deals between various companies.  That is why the production credit to a major film now looks like a business directory.  Modern movies are all about deals.  The creative process is secondary, at best.  The actual screenplay to most big budget movies are currently hashed out at the last minute.  Who has time to worry about scripts when you have deals to make?

Likewise, there has been a radical shift in the type of executives who run the major companies.  In the old days, the studios were ruled by a strange brigade of crude and outrageous tin-horned dictators called the moguls.  Rude stories about their social pretensions and ludcious assumptions are the stuff of legend.  But they all had one important trait in common: They actually liked making movies for a wide audience.  They were showmen.  In some crazy way they knew what they were doing (more or less) and enjoyed delivering the cinematic goods.

Today, the business is ruled by deal-makers.  The only show they know is “show me the money.”  They have no innate or intuitive grasp of entertainment.  The creative aspect is immaterial except as it relates to the deal.  Some filmmakers have adjusted to this condition.  People like Christopher Nolan and Gore Verbinski have successfully made themselves part of the deal as they package their films in a kind of prefab industrial manner.  Michael Bay is virtually the Campbell Soup of the business (his movies may not be very good but at least you always know what you’re getting).

But most filmmakers will either fail or, at best, have a short lifespan within the system.  Some, like Michel Gondry, are just too idiosyncratic to ever fit within the deal.  Others just get lost somewhere within the process (I hear that Jon Favreau‘s photo can now be found on milk cartons).  If they are lucky, they can work in television (where I just found Favreau – I want a finder’s fee).

Meanwhile, the business culture of modern Hollywood is locked into a narrow – and ultimately self-defeating – mindset that is doomed to implode.  Just as I was writing this, I received a copy of the Variety report The Blockbuster Movie Model That Ate Hollywood.  They are taking a different path toward the same direction I have been describing.  This doomsday prophet biz is getting way too competitive for my liking.

Either way, the mainstream system is destined to collapse.  It is happening already.  The only real question is what will emerge as its replacement.  2014 promises to be an extremely interesting year.

Dennis Toth Copyright©2013 All Rights Reserved