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Summary:

If read just one article about the demise of quality movies being produced by Hollywood, check out Mark Harris’ “The Day the Movies Died.” With studio decisions being increasingly driven by marketers, the focus has shifted to producing film franchises rather than telling original stories.

hollywood sign

If you only read one story this weekend about the current state of the movie business — and the future of what’s to come — check out Mark Harris’ “The Day the Movies Died” in GQ. The story serves as a stark history lesson about Hollywood’s increasing focus on whether or not a movie can be marketed, rather than whether or not it is actually good.

The gist of the piece is that event movies are taking over Hollywood, powered by the desire to sell to a target demographic of under-25 year-old male viewers. The results have been disastrous for those of us that enjoy good film making. As Harris writes:

“[L]et’s look ahead to what’s on the menu for this year: four adaptations of comic books. One prequel to an adaptation of a comic book. One sequel to a sequel to a movie based on a toy. One sequel to a sequel to a sequel to a movie based on an amusement-park ride. One prequel to a remake. Two sequels to cartoons. One sequel to a comedy. An adaptation of a children’s book. An adaptation of a Saturday-morning cartoon. One sequel with a 4 in the title. Two sequels with a 5 in the title. One sequel that, if it were inclined to use numbers, would have to have a 7 1/2 in the title.”

And the outlook for 2012 isn’t much better.

So how did we get here? Harris believes Hollywood’s troubles are the result of the rise of the marketer as final arbiter in not just how a movie is sold, but whether or not it should even be green-lit to begin with.

In some ways, the ascent of the marketer was inevitable: Now that would-be blockbusters often open on more than 4,000 screens, the cost of selling a movie has skyrocketed toward—and sometimes past—$40 million to $50 million per film, which is often more than the movie itself cost to make… With so much money at stake, the marketer’s voice at the studio table is now pivotal from the day a studio decides whether to make a movie—and usually what that voice expresses is trepidation. Their first question is not “Will the movie be good?” but “Can it be sold?”

Of course, it’s easy to blame the Hollywood studios for producing schlock, but it’s really consumers that have helped spur this strategy on. After all, viewers have continued filling movie theaters en masse despite the relatively low quality of films being offered. And the folks that aren’t turning out for movies, well, they’re equally at fault, if not more so, Harris suggests:

“We can complain until we’re hoarse that Hollywood abandoned us by ceasing to make the kinds of movies we want to see, but it’s just as true that we abandoned Hollywood. Studios make movies for people who go to the movies, and the fact is, we don’t go anymore… put simply, we’d rather stay home, and movies are made for people who’d rather go out.”

The good news, if you can call it that, is that consumers are finally voting with their feet — and their wallets. Due to poor film selection during what is typically Oscar season — yes, Oscar season! — attendance was down 12 percent in the final quarter of the year, with sales down about 8 percent. Granted, those numbers are compared to a quarter that saw the launch of Hollywood blockbuster Avatar, but they’re indicative of a growing trend of theatre goers that just can’t be bothered anymore to go to the theater.

Maybe — just maybe — if that trend continues, the studios might finally wake up and realize that the problem isn’t piracy or windows or that people don’t want to pay for content, but that consumers don’t want to pay for the particular content that Hollywood is offering them.

Photo of Hollywood sign courtesy of Flickr user Sörn.

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  1. Not to mention that going to the theater anymore is usually a downright crappy experience. The glow of cell phones everywhere, people talking nonstop, damaged screens, blurry picture, sound problems, crying babies, etc., etc. Almost anytime I go to the theater I have to go out and ask them to focus their damn projector. In the end it’s just not worth it.

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  2. That’s right! It is us marketers who are at fault. *laughing my ass off*

    The article starts off without a SINGLE citation for all the rumor claims it makes. Not a SINGLE one. Now there is great journalism at work. How about we instead do an article about yellow journalism?

    And I love it how Inception is held up as some wonderful movie. Really? I am a regular at a newsgroup for screenwriters and it isn’t that well liked by them. But what do they know? They just write movies.

    Oh, and there’s no sequel to “Inception” because the movie’s story arc doesn’t lend itself to a sequel. If a sequel is made, this article author will only complain about it as it has no substance … which it wouldn’t since the original resolved all its issues. But even if it did have substance, he’d still complain because it is simply a sequel.

    What this article is really about is this writer growing up and becoming a cranky old fart. Let me makes some guesses about him. He uses an Apple computer and has an iPod and an iPhone. He drinks coffee in the morning but it wouldn’t be classified as “regular” or “decaf”, isn’t brewed at home, and probably costs more than what most people spend on their entire breakfast. Which he sips while reading the New York Times. His car is a hybrid but he travels on airlines so much that he is one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gases. He voted for Obama because he likes image over substance. [Ironic when you consider what he's whining about in his article.] In other words, what we’re talking about is an elitist snob who never digs beneath the surface of any issue, knows what’s best for us, and has a VERY selective memory and VERY little knowledge about Hollywood’s history.

    Want to talk about garbage coming out of Hollywood? Really? We’re holding up the 60s and 70s are the high point in movie history? The era of the HORRIBLE movies like “Easy Rider” that is only good if you’re stoned when you watch it. The era that used the Academy Awards not to award merit but to spend political messages to the people in “flyover country.” One of the symptoms of being an old coot is only remembering the good of the past and only seeing the bad of the present.

    And I love it how this author doesn’t understand how expensive movies are to make and how the production companies have to turn a profit or they go out of business. Or how “high concept” was simply a term that finally labeled what people in the industry had been doing since the movie industry started. High concept condenses a movie down to its best selling point. Yes, yes, this article author thinks that’s wrong. He probably also thinks it is wrong that men like shorter attractive women and women like taller rich men.

    Hollywood has NEVER been about making great movies. Never. It has and will always be about making profitable movies. Movies that people are willing to pay to see in movie theaters. It crafts movies for certain demographics because not everyone likes what everyone else likes. Not that this author can see that. No, only what he likes is good and if you disagree with that, you have no taste.

    And the truth of the matter is that teenage boys go to movies the most and will go see the same movie more than once. Adults have busy lives so when they go to a movie, it is rare and then they expect high quality when they do go. For those of you who are adults, go and see “The King’s Speech” and you’ll be happy you did. But teenage boys don’t have or need such high standards since they’ve got time to blow. They just want to be entertained.

    As for spending money on advertising that equals what it costs to produce the product, I am sorry this naive author doesn’t understand how a capitalistic economy works. Contrary to his ivory tower dreams, the world will not beat a path to your door if you make a better mousetrap. That is a fairy tale. They will only beat a path to your doorstep IF they know you have what you say is a better mousetrap. Oh, and usually the public NEVER simply accepts your word for it but you have to give a reason why you say yours is the best.

    As for why movies are not opened slowly anymore is because Hollywood started advertising movies on broadcast and cable TV networks. Think about that for a moment. If you advertise on them but don’t make the movie available where that advertising is seen, you’ve just wasted advertising. You want Hollywood to do slow roll-outs? Fine. Prohibit it from advertising on broadcast and cable TV networks. But if you happen to not live in one of the major cities, too bad for you. That movie might never come to your city or town if it doesn’t become a smash it in the big cities. Oh, and if that happens, expect an author like the one of this article to then moan about that and how unfair that is to those in small markets. Instead this author thinks it is more than fine that those in small markets should be deprived of seeing a brand-new movie when it comes out. Now I could say he probably feels they deserve such treatment because they’re not living in New York City as he does, but the truth is probably he never thought about the rubbish he wrote and its logical conclusions.

    And let us deal with those awful movies based on comic books. Why do they succeed? This article’s author would say because they appeal to teenagers and nothing else. Really? Or might the reason be because the comic book authors and artists did the hard work of working out all the characters, relationships, arch-enemies (a.k.a. antagonists), background story, how they look, and everything about their world for Hollywood. New comic books come out all the time. Most fail. Those that survive and prosper survived and prospered for a reason. That reason is something Hollywood can and will capitalize on.

    Oh, and the above is the same reason why Hollywood loves to base movies on bestselling novels. “Gone with the Wind” anyone? Not only does it have a ready audience but all the issues have already been worked out by the novelist and the public has proven it likes it. Hollywood’s big challenge is being able to bring that book (or comic book) to life on the big screen. That is a really hard challenge as not all books or comic books successfully transfer to the silver screen. For every Batman you have numerous failures like “Punisher.” Novels have just as bad of a track record.

    I think what this author doesn’t understand is that Hollywood isn’t really the place for groundbreaking material but where the stuff that has succeeded elsewhere can go to reach the next level. There are exceptions to this but there are always exceptions. Some small movies can become big franchises. “Terminator” was a B-movie with a B-List star that because a “dark horse” hit … as did the original “Alien”. Once proven, they both were given a LOT more money to make a sequel … which many critics rated better than the original. Look it up. Both “Terminator 2″ and “Aliens” received on average higher scores than their original. Unfortunately, those in charge of them let standards drop so both are now damaged franchises. THAT is a lesson that Hollywood has yet to learn. How NOT to damage a franchise. “Spiderman 2″ was better than “Spiderman” but “Spiderman 3″ was horrible.

    And the author’s “summer creep” is just ridiculous. First, the biggest box office time FOREVER has been the Christmas season. Starting at Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day weekend. “Avatar” wasn’t a summer release but a Christmas season release (Dec 18). Summer blockbusters are a recent invention and Hollywood still views the Christmas season as the biggest time of all to premiere a movie.

    And then the author rips on Hollywood catering to men under 25. How sad. This is where his elitism snobbism and all his isms come into full view. What a sad sad person this author is.

    Here’s the truth of the matter. Girls don’t care about movies as much as boys do and so they spend their money on other things. What money girls have, they tend to spend on clothes and looking pretty. Boys spend very little money on clothes and most have their parents buy them clothes. Boys spend NO money on making themselves look good. If a boy showers and combs his hair, everyone around him is thrilled. Boys boast how fast they can get in and out of the bathroom. Girls roll their eyes at such thoughts.

    And adults have TONS of FAR more important things to spend money on than movies. So what Hollywood is left with are boys and men under 25. Oh, and you can read “men under 25″ as “unmarried men”. And that is another thing that marketers are realizing. It is single men that are ripe for advertising and that includes movies. Be they unmarried or divorced. As long as they are single (again), they have lots of excess money and time to blow.

    As for why the Oscar doesn’t help as much anymore is because of all the damage Hollywood did to the Academy Awards in the author’s cherished 60s and 70s when movies won not for merit but for their political messages. That and when the smash hits don’t even get nominated, the public can only rightly assume that their tastes and Hollywood’s elitists are not one and the same. Like a movie critic which you never agree with is one you stop reading, the Oscars are becoming that to Americans.

    Oh, and I find it funny that this article author used “True Grit” as an example of good Hollywood. Sorry, dude, but “True Grit” is a remake of a classic. Nothing original there. Nothing at all. Next time, please do some research before you write. I know it will be a novel experience but you might actually make something worth reading then.

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    1. Keep dreaming idiot.

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  3. This article is another indication that “tech blogs” have jumped the shark. The quest for SEO headlines and creating “controversy” where non exists is pitiful.

    This is the second GigaOm post in the past week where I feel like I’m in Mash or Crunch turf.

    If you worked at a Studio, at any level, you’d know that the Distribution arm (where marketing dollars are spent), are entirely self-contained corporations. Yes, they are consulted prior to production as they review script, cast and director prospects so they can run projections. They don’t run Production or Development.

    “Marketers” are not entrenched within the Studio development wing, which is where the dreck rises to the surface. The Production Execs (who oversee Development) are not Marketers, worse, many are lawyers, former Agents or MBAs who got their gigs through film school connections and they’ve lived in isolated silos of film business-think since they were 18. They are incapable of thinking outside the box.

    The truth is, this isn’t all that new. Yes, STAR WARS was the turning point for “franchise-think” – and, if you watch the opening scene of THE PLAYER, the first few minutes pretty much sum up the Industry (those are not “Marketers” we’re hearing). But, “franchise-think” has been with us since the early-80′s. So, why is this “news” in “newteevee?”

    You can go back to the days of Raymond Chandler and his quotes about Industry (before there were film schools, lawyers, or “super Agents” and even before there were separate Distribution arms) if you want some historical perspective:

    “The overall picture, as the boys say, is of a degraded community whose idealism even is largely fake. The pretentiousness, the bogus enthusiasm, the constant drinking, the incessant squabbling over money, the all-pervasive agent, the strutting of the big shots (and their usually utter incompetence to achieve anything they start out to do), the constant fear of losing all this fairy gold and being the nothing they have never ceased to be, the snide tricks, the whole damn mess is out of this world.” – Raymond Chandler

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  4. [...] How Marketers Killed the Movies (GQ; NewTeeVee): Original article is GQ, NTV sums it [...]

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