This week I have been reading Sleepless in Hollywood, by a Hollywood producer named Linda Obst. She is a Boomer, born 1950, and she got into the movie business because, as she puts it, she loved movies. (Our youths were probably the greatest movie-watching age in American history.) Her first major credit was on Flashdance and she produced an old favorite of mine, Adventures in Babysitting. Her career peaked in the 1990s when she produced Contact, The Siege, One Fine Day, and Hope Floats, and co-produced the great Sleepless in Seattle. Her tastes, in short, overlap with mine,. although they are not the same. But she's a product of the same literate culture I grew up in, apparently, and she wrote her book to try to explain what has gone so wrong in Hollywood and why it has become almost impossible to get the kind of movie either she or I like produced. I will attempt to summarize her findings.
It will not come as a surprise to anyone to realize that the studios focus relentlessly on their bottom lines, but I think the nature of their market will come as a surprise. I have known for a long time that young males (and "young," it turns out, means 24 or under) are their main target, but things have gotten much worse than that now. Since digitization and the net effectively destroyed the DVD market early in the last decade, the studios depend for their profits on foreign markets, led increasingly by China and Russia. Chinese and Russian audiences love action pictures and have no use for anything that requires an understanding of the actual facts of western history or the details of the western cultural tradition. There is another key aspect to the business that has done even more harm: marketing costs are immense. The best way not to pay them is to make an instantly recognizable movie that people will automatically want to see. The easiest way to do that, obviously, is to use the title of a successful movie and add a II, III or IV to it. (Which reminded me of one of my favorite stories: the play The Madness of George III became The Madness of King George on screen, so that viewers wouldn't stay away, having missed the first two films in the series.) So the highest-demand kind of project is what is called a tentpole, that is, a movie that became a series, or better still, a franchise. (The 1960s movie that had by far the most impact on the movie business was Dr. No.) That is why movies based upon superheroes keep appearing again and again, retailored for each new generation. That's why Harry Potter and The Ring were so successful and why, at this moment, dozens of Hollywood folks are looking for the next one. It's also why we've seen a good many movies based on TV shows, which are also seen worldwide. Now if you're in your mid-sixties and you've been a serious movie-goer all your life, as I have, it's easy to let most of these films slip by your radar, but they are, as Obst shows with charts, the lifeblood and almost the sole preoccupation of the film industry. And a movie without foreign appeal or any possibility of a sequel has very little chance of being made.
Indeed, most of the more dramatically ambitious films that do get made, like Argo or the Life of Pi or Lincoln or Good Night and Good Luck, owe their life to one superstar actor (Clooney, Damon, or Affleck) or director (Spielberg, Ang Lee) who wanted to make them. And some of them are still good enough to make some money for all concerned. But there's the rub: while they may make some money, they can't possibly make the kind of money a Superman or Batman movie can make, if only because they have little appeal outside the United States. So the success of one isn't going to spawn very many others. Similar phenomena dominate the publishing industry, which markets names, not books. And that's why sheer creativity plays so little role in the process.
I would love to meet Linda Obst, although it's hard to see how that could happen, and I really appreciate her book, but I must say I think her tastes have been affected by her role in the industry and in certain cases by friendships. She is fascinated that Inception, which was very hard to market because the plot was so absurdly complicated, did so well, and she profiles the marketing genius--a friend of hers--who made it happen at some length. But I thought Inception was a terrible movie, and essentially that the plot was an excuse to put three simultaneous chase sequences on the screen at once. In other words, to borrow a slogan from our youth, part of the problem, not part of the solution.
There is, it turns out, a parallel universe of independents who are making films for almost nothing, putting them on youtube, and, occasionally, getting an invitation from a major festival and becoming a critical success and making some money. Beats of the Southern Wild was one such (although again, for very different reasons, I was underwhelmed by it.) In addition, Woody Allen still manages to get financing, and I am told that his latest, Blue Jasimine, a serious drama, is outstanding, making three good movies in a row, all in his late 70s. (Midnight in Paris was wonderful and I thought To Rome with Love was quite good, although it was less successful.) My local multiplexes are filled with films from Europe. The kind of creativity that generated the best films of the period 1970-2000, though, is now going into cable television. That provides a different kind of experience. Obst explains why we mustn't expect things to get any better very soon--if ever--at the movies.
Coincidentally, this appeared today. . .