Weekend Reading: How Marketers Killed the Movie Biz

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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