The State of the Movies

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

Against my better judgment, I watched the Golden Globes, that annual industry joke that's more of an event than an honor. Curiosity--and the spectacle of all those stars gathered together in one place, looking glamorous--got the better of me. After all, that's what Hollywood's about. The awards themselves, however, were disturbing. Not just because heartthrob Mel Gibson beat out the comparatively less handsome Martin Scorsese and Ang Lee for best director, but because he was even nominated in the first place. What does this sort of thing say about the state of the industry? At the heart of my unease was the oft-touted fun fact that the Globes are an early, and frequently accurate, harbinger of the Academy Award races. Is it actually possible we'll see Mel holding that statuette high in March? Or Meathead? Opie?

Though we seem to have fallen far indeed, this year really isn't much different from any other in recent memory. It's always seemed difficult for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences (AMPAS) to come up with five solid best-actress nominations. However, it's only within the last five years that they've been equally hard-pressed to come up with five films to vie for best picture. In 1991 the field was so weak AMPAS bowed to pressure and nominated its first animated feature, Disney's Beauty and the Beast. And this year (also notoriously weak), Miramax's The Postman is being seriously considered as the first-ever foreign film to make the Academy's short list since Ingmar Bergman's Cries and Whispers in 1973. Time to ask an old question again: Why is it that so many films suck so hard?

We should start by admitting the obvious but often forgotten fact that an awfully high percentage of movies has always sucked. Most of us have a highly selective memory--we romanticize the past, remembering It Happened One Night and On the Waterfront and conveniently forgetting bottom-feeders like The Loves of Edgar Allan Poe and I Like Your Nerve. But it's these marginal movies that really represent traditional Hollywood fare. Why? Because they were cheap to make and they made money.

During the heyday of the studio system, Hollywood studios were often called "dream factories." And factories they were. Thanks to exclusive contracts with writers, directors, and actors as well as studio ownership of movie theaters, feature films were churned out at an astonishing rate--often shot in less than two weeks' time (as opposed to present day features, whose shooting schedules are typically anywhere between five weeks and five months). With such control, it wasn't uncommon for an actor like Bette Davis, signed to infamous seven-year contracts, to make as many as 10 films a year; or for a director to receive a script on Friday and start shooting Monday.

The result was the B-movie. Employing novice actors and directors, studios turned them out weekly. Serials, westerns, melodramas, musicals--whatever was popular at the time was quickly produced and funneled into theaters. Even films like Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon were seen by the studios as B-movies. Popular, entertaining, and for the most part forgettable, these films were the bread-and-butter of the studio system, training fledgling directors like John Ford and John Huston as well as virtually every actor in Hollywood. And their profitability, in part, made it possible for the studios to take the financial risk of producing their prestige projects.

Of course, it shouldn't come as much of a surprise that moviemaking has always been a business first, last, and always. Over the years, and throughout the changes in the market and marketplace, Hollywood has maintained a persistence of vision: to maximize product and minimize expense. Still, there persists among us the notion of film as art--because it can be, and sometimes is. But to the men (and occasional woman) holding the purse strings, as to so many of us, art is a luxury; and the only way a studio executive will finance art is if he thinks it will fill theater seats. It's the rare executive who thinks it will.

But since this has always been the case, it still leaves the question of why Hollywood seems to have produced progressively fewer surprises and more banality in the past few years. It's largely a testament to the manner in which studios develop, make, and sell their form of entertainment in an ever more lucrative global economy.

Hollywood films have long been a popular export, but throughout the '80s the profit ceiling kept being raised higher and higher, and Hollywood started to see the financial possibilities of playing well in France, Denmark, and Japan. For the most part it came down to one thing: action. You don't have to speak English or read subtitles to understand what Arnold, Sly, or Bruce are doing. Add to this an interest in American pop culture and technological feats of fancy, and you've got a built-in audience. The money came pouring in. Take the case of Jurassic Park. The foreign box office nearly doubled that film's already legendary gross, making it the first film to pass the $1 billion mark from box office receipts alone. In fact, due to the appetite for American films abroad (and the corresponding theatrical and home video markets), it seems like the days of a financial disaster on the scale of Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate are long gone. Just look at Waterworld. Though many in the industry predicted a Water Gate in the offing, overseas exhibition provided a bailout; thanks to Europe and Japan in particular, it's already passed the $200 million mark before its release on home video and cable television.

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.

But for all the talk of concepts and teams, it's the stars that get movies made. "If you get a bankable actor to say yes to something, it'll get made," says Suzanne Zizzi, the former director of development at Alphaville Productions. "Take Dumb and Dumber, for example. That script had been kicking around Hollywood for a while. And every once in a while there was some new interest in getting it made, but there was that crucial ingredient missing. Then Jim Carrey comes along, makes a movie called Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, and all of a sudden he's a huge star and he's perfect to make Dumb and Dumber." Production companies were scrambling to find projects that suited Carrey, says Zizzi; Dumb and Dumber won out mostly because it was ready to shoot immediately and could therefore capitalize on Carrey's popularity. For all the talk of "liberal" Hollywood, it's actually one of the most conservative businesses around.

And as Hollywood plays it safer and safer, producers are turning to television for "hot" actors with perceived followings. Take the In Living Color and Saturday Night Live vehicles that have popped up in the past few years. Zizzi is the first to admit many of these films are "pretty lousy," even though Alphaville was responsible for the rap music parody CB-4. "Why do these movies get made?" she says. "What it comes down to is that the studio thinks they've got a marketable talent--they can make the movies pretty cheaply and turn a profit." With busy television shooting schedules to contend with, timing, not content, takes precedence. As for CB-4, "It went into production because Chris Rock was needed back at SNL. [The producers] said 'If we're going to make this movie, we need to make it now.' It turned a modest profit, but it could have been a really big hit if the script had been stronger."

Another factor that colors studio judgment about which films get made when is the opportunity for additional, non-box office income: toy licensing, fast-food restaurant tie-ins, and television and video spinoffs. Though action films often benefit from these cross-promotions, it's animated features that really rake in the cash. According to Katie Chin, who served as vice president and senior vice president of licensing and promotions for 20th Century Fox and Disney, the huge success of animated features has created a highly competitive business, with virtually every studio creating its own animated and/or family entertainment division--precisely because of the money to be made outside of the box office grosses. "We'd actually start pitching sometimes up to two years in advance of a release," she says, "partly because the QSRs [quick-service restaurants] had such long lead times and because [the market's] so competitive. Studios will expect their promotions department to get one major QSR on board and one to three consumer brand products, like a Hi-C or a cereal," which translates into tens of millions of dollars in additional income per picture.

Other unreported income comes from television pre-buys. Films that will likely have large television audiences will actually have a network representative on set to oversee "TV takes." In an action film, for example, one of these takes would be to reduce the amount of blood during a stunt, or clean up a particularly foul-mouthed scene. Robocop, for example, had a lot of bloody scenes. Additional, almost identical, takes were necessary to reduce the amount of blood, since networks have policies about that sort of thing. Diner, by contrast, needed TV takes to clean up the language for national broadcast. This is just another example of the income-generating deals that add tens of millions of dollars to the studio coffers before the first print is struck.

All of this is to say that additional ways of generating income can actually have an effect on which films a studio puts on the front burner and which ones it lets languish in development.

Then comes the day that films actually go into production. And here is where the colossal fuck-ups take place. Waterworld was a textbook case in how not to make a movie. Shooting in Hawaii, the producers began by ignoring crucial input from locals. They built their entire island set on the exposed side of the island, resulting in millions of dollars in storm damages and lost production time. Then they neglected to plan for and build bathrooms on the island set. Actors and crew members had to be ferried back to shore or a nearby boat to go to the bathroom.

Sadly, scenarios like this are far from uncommon. If anything, they're the norm. The fact of the matter is that the possibility of losing financing once it's given often makes filmmakers within the studio system rush into production. And once in production, the decision to "save" money by not hiring experts or cutting corners almost always ends up being a false economy. The strange thing is that Hollywood knows this. There's a oft-quoted maxim that you save money in the long run by spending more time in preproduction. But this is actually the most ignored rule of thumb in the industry. Because, as everyone involved in the industry knows, at the end of the day good or bad doesn't matter: It's in marketing--not content--that Hollywood's faith and hope reside.

If the problem was just that Hollywood primarily makes and markets bad movies, our moviegoing situation wouldn't necessarily be so bad--because there might come to be more competition at movie theaters from foreign and independent films. But no. Thanks to the deregulation that began in the Reagan administration, studios and/or their parent companies are back in the game of owning everything related to filmmaking: movie theaters (Loews, Cineplex Odeon and Mann Theaters), the magazines and TV shows that promote them (Entertainment Weekly, Premiere, Entertainment Tonight), the distribution companies that release the films in theaters and on video, and even the cable and network television stations that later show them. The moviemaking conglomerates increasingly control what we see and where we see it, and make money every step of the way. And they are now threatening the relatively few options we have left with their next line of conquest: the assimilation of the independents.

Studios have always been interested in independent filmmakers. Spike Lee, Richard Linklater, Kevin Smith, Ed Burns--they all made a big splash with their first independent (that is, non-studio-financed) feature film. And all were quickly and completely incorporated into the studio system. What's changed with deregulation is the scale and composition of the major studios' independent acquisitions. For now it's not just the filmmakers they're buying, but the independent production companies and mini-major studios. Smaller companies like Miramax and New Line Cinema/Fine Line Features have steadily expanded and become hugely profitable by two principal means: buying independent films from their makers, and producing a relatively modest number of works for far less than the major studios can. Primarily they keep costs down by generally not being union signators and by keeping salaries low. Therefore, when they hit, they hit big. And when low-budget films like sex, lies & videotape, The Wedding Banquet, or A Room With A View start passing the $40 million mark, it does not go unnoticed by the major studios.

Miramax, founded 16 years ago by Harvey and Bob Weinstein, is a good example of how independent film has grown into a powerhouse industry. Miramax is perhaps best known for producing and/or distributing films like The Crying Game and Pulp Fiction. And through their combination of acquiring and producing, they've slowly amassed a film library of over 200 titles, including several films which have grossed over $100 million.

So hand-in-hand with Big News mergers like Disney's purchase of ABC Television come relatively quieter deals like Disney's 1993 acquisition of Miramax and its exclusive three-year deal with Merchant-Ivory Productions (Howards End, The Remains of the Day)--deals that promise to have a significant and potentially troubling impact on the films we'll get to see in the future.

First, just look at some numbers. In 1992 Disney released 21 films and received 5 Academy Award nominations (mostly for Aladdin). Meanwhile, Miramax released 17 films that garnered 11 nominations. It doesn't take a genius to see that Disney's buying prestige. They don't make many lavishly praised films, so they buy a company that does, inking a deal with the Weinstein brothers that promises them creative autonomy and secures their positions with the company for the next five years.

On the surface, it may seem that the Disney deal hasn't affected Miramax's offerings. After all, this new partnership found a way to release two controversial films, Priest and Kids. But not without some fallout. Priest attracted a lot of negative press for both the title character's homosexuality and the Weinsteins' original plan to release the film on Easter Sunday. There was a boycott of Disney films by Catholic groups and others who claimed to represent "family values." Disney ate it. Not because they wanted to, but because they didn't have a choice; Priest came with Miramax as a completed film, with a release date already set.

Now add to this headache Larry Clark's Kids, a parent's nightmare. Bound by their pact with family-oriented Disney not to release NC-17 or unrated films, Miramax found itself at a crisis point. Committed to standing behind the film (and not wanting to see it go to a competing distributor), Miramax did some nifty legal contortions and wound up creating a separate company to distribute the unrated Kids. But now that Miramax is within the Disney fold, what of their future projects? Will Disney continue to give Miramax the autonomy it promised? And will Disney allow Miramax to greenlight or acquire an independent film that's unrated or especially controversial? Not likely. And what happens to Miramax after the Weinstein brothers' contract expires in 1998? What direction will "cutting-edge" Miramax take then? Will they keep doing riskier prestige projects, or will Disney--and the other majors who have invested in boutique divisions--simply turn to their traditional formulae and bank on the mini-majors' reputations until they're bled dry?

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