The State of the Movies

Hollywood 1996: Things are changing, and it's all the same.

For all the success abroad, however, Hollywood usually looks first to how well a film will play at home. And here, as abroad, action is king. One possible explanation comes from the competition provided by television. With ever more options available on the home screen, Hollywood believes that movies--which now cost $7-$8 a head in most metropolitan theaters--need to be Events in order to attract huge audiences. Otherwise, the reasoning goes, people will just wait for them to come out on video. Statistics suggest that Hollywood is right.

The best bet for big-screen thrills is action. And where there's success, there's imitation. One of the most copied films of the past 20 years is Die Hard. It's so copied, in fact, that most action films in today's market can be summed up by reference to it (and in many cases are greenlighted because of the comparison). Speed: Die Hard on a bus. Under Seige: Die Hard on a boat. Sudden Death: Die Hard in an arena. In industry-speak, this is, ironically, called "high concept" moviemaking. That is, easily understandable--and therefore, easily marketable. Action/adventure films now routinely make hundreds of millions of dollars, while character pieces (even the wildly popular Sense & Sensibility) set their sights on the $20-40 million range at best. And these sorts of pronouncements are birthed in the development process.

Development goes something like this: On the lot at all major studios are production companies that have exclusive production deals with that studio. These companies are often small, consisting of just a producer or production team and a director of development who finds new screenplays, ideas, or properties. Mandated to keep a full corral of projects in different stages of readiness, it's not unusual for a production company to have as many as 30 or 40 films in development at any given time, with the director of development keeping tabs on each and reporting back to the producers.

Once a property is selected for development, the producer approaches the studio for financing--anything from money to hire a writer or buy a screenplay to fully financing a film. This is nothing new; it's how the revamped studio system has worked for decades. What actually gets a project greenlighted these days, though, is another matter: the Team.

It was in the '80s that films, usually action films, started to expect to make $80-100 million in theatrical release. And the industry began to gauge a film's success, or potential for success, in terms of its opening weekend box office. This was a marked change from the theatrical distribution scheme of the '60s and '70s, when both production costs and box office expectations were generally lower. In those days films were more likely to be allowed to "find an audience." Today, there's no tolerance for this, even for low- to medium-budget films. Consider A Little Princess--universally hailed by critics, it was yanked from theaters within weeks of its opening because it performed below studio expectations. Industry insiders then began placing blame, which boiled down to two things: competition from other family-oriented films, and the lack of a bankable lead actress. In short, there was nothing of perceived substance to use to market the film and make people choose it over the other films at the multiplex.

A Little Princess aside, executives are more interested in a film's assembled "team" than in the screenplay: If a producer's got Renny Harlin directing, Bruce Willis starring, and a marketable concept (Die Hard on a plane), he can pretty much start counting the money. But what we've seen lately are teams and concepts that overwhelm the project, with Waterworld standing as the most notorious example of flagrant financial irresponsibility--all because the studio has an unflagging faith in its ability to sell the final product, good or bad, to the public.

Part of that faith comes from the assembled team, most notably the lead actors. In a cutthroat market, films need to prove themselves at the box office quickly or they're sent packing early to foreign theaters, video, and television. As a result, producers are looking more and more to the stars that can "open" a movie. Brad Pitt can open a movie. That is, his involvement alone will account for a certain amount of interest--and revenue--opening weekend. Then there are concepts that can open a film, like live-action cartoons--The Flintstones, Batman, and so forth. Easy sells, as a marketing department would call them.

Sequels offer an interesting twist on the development game. Take Grumpy and Grumpier Old Men, for example. Since the original was a major hit, there was, of course, the potential for an equally successful sequel. The sequel is greenlighted. All the very busy stars of the original film are consulted, and a very rigid production date is set. The race is then on to get a script done as quickly as possible--not really the best conditions for creating great work. In cases like this, the deck is stacked against you from the start. And in the case of Grumpier Old Men, it got even more out of hand. According to industry insiders, two very different scripts were being considered by the producers throughout the development and pre-production periods. And it wasn't until a matter of weeks before filming was to begin that a decision was finally made. Delay and indecision like this then results in a huge domino effect: Locations need to be found, sets built, supporting actors cast. This modus operandi underscores Hollywood's faith in stars, concept, and marketing over actual product, and regularly results in a state of chaos that is virtually impossible to overcome.

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