Steven Spielberg and George Lucas are warning that movies as we have known them for the last century are pretty much through.
The two mavens of spectacle who keep trying to top each other with box office extravaganzas told USC students that soon the big franchises—Iron Man, Superman, Batman, Spiderman, whateverman—will implode, possibly taking a studio or two with them and causing ticket prices to skyrocket to maybe $25 per film. And that’s for the relatively small number that get the green light. Furthermore, they’ll all be the very sort of action extravaganzas that are sinking studios, as the suits continue to bet the house on the one big summer grand slam. Sort of the way all the institutional stock investors bet on Facebook. Look how that turned out.
Spielberg says this is inevitable as the cost of making these films soars higher than Henry Cavill in front of a green screen. What’s the cure for overbloated productions? More of them! If you’re morbidly obese, isn’t the answer more cheesecake?
Buddy George commiserated with Steve, pointing out that his mediocre film Red Tails, about the Tuskegee airmen of World War II, flopped. The fact that it lacked even the intellectual depth of Star Wars The Phantom Menace had nothing to do with it, I imagine.
The Dynamic Duo said most theater owners exhibiting the Big Budget Blockbusters will start charging huge prices and running their films longer and longer, the way Broadway does now with its bloated shows. More down-to-earth fare without special effects and wall-to-wall THX ear-shattering sound? That will all go to TV, Spiels explained, lamenting that that’s where his own Lincoln almost ended up. (And it belonged there in my opinion, but that’s another post.)
“You’re entering the industry at a time when even established filmmakers are struggling to get their projects into theaters,” he said, adding it’s gotten tough even for George and him. To me, this is like Willie Sutton and John Dillinger complaining about bank robberies.
Do these two cinematic bozos forget who started this mad rush to money money money and sequels sequels sequels? It wasn’t Horton Foote. (Actually, George once pinned the blame fort the explosion of special effects extravaganzas on the James Bond films. Yes, he really did.) After creating the modern genre of pure spectacle, and then seeing it largely get beyond them as younger directors paper the screen with even more special effects and action sequences than they did, they complain that cinema as we know it is dead.
Guys, could you accept a little more of the responsibility from atop your piles of lucre? (Incidentally, Spielberg is the guy who said, back in the 80s, he’d never make a sequel, because there was no challenge in that, it was like playing slots that were rigged. Yeah, the director of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Indian Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Jurassic Park, Jurassic Park The Lost World, Jurassic Park III, and the upcoming Jurassic Park IV and Indiana Jones V and VI said that.)
We have a generation of film-goers who can’t sit still for ten seconds if something on the screen isn’t blowing up or engaging in a laser battle or high-speed chase. Dialogue? That’s boring! Character development? Who cares? Plot? Slows down the action. Plus you can’t sell these movies in many overseas markets unless the stories are cereal-box simple and there’s lots of spandex and skin. I’m sure someday self-styled “educators” will lament that under the shiny new Core Curriculum measures sweeping the nation, children can no longer read books with any depth either, and ain’t that a shame.
You can read the whole story here.
UPDATE 3/20: It’s even worse than $164 million. Disney is writing off two hundred million bucks in the John Carter debacle. As I said, you could feed Africa with the money these studios routinely lose.
This past weekend the uber-pricy Disney epic John Carter opened to a dull thud at the box office. This follows the thudding of Nick Cage’s Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengence, Kate Beckinsale’s Underworld: Awakening, George Lucas’ Star Wars Episode I in 3D, Mars Needs Moms, Cowboys & Aliens, Green Lantern, Conan the Barbarian, The Thing, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, and Thor. John Carter alone is expected to pinch the Mouse for around $164 million. In all fairness, a few of these movies have gone on or possibly will go on to at least semi-redeem themselves in overseas numbers and video game sales and Burger King tie-ins.
But what’s interesting to me is that you never hear the power players in Hollywood saying it’s time to stop this big budget special effects madness, that maybe, with the exception of a few franchises, most of which are now threadbare anyway (next time, Indiana Jones will battle rheumatism), movie-goers are sick of fake computer monsters? Instead they just go back, make excuses, and churn out more.
“Sure there are some that lose money,” the studio execs say. “But then you have a mega-hit that wipes out all the losses.” A while ago someone, I forget who, looked at studio releases and divided them into two categories: the big-budget effects films and the smaller, character-driven movies. A few films are hard to fit neatly into one category or the other (anything by Terry Gilliam, for example) but for the most part there’s not too much bias going on here. And this person added up the cost of the films of both sides vs. the grosses, and guess what? Percentage-wise, the small “indie” films that only get attention around Oscar time actually returned more on their investments than the IMAX and THX-sound boom-boomies. This is because, contrary to studio-head wisdom, it’s actually the losers that wipe out the mega-hits more often.
Back in the ’80s, when Michael Cimino nearly bankrupted a studio with Heaven’s Gate, there was this tremendous backlash against big ticket productions. Movies were shelved or their budgets cut, for no reason other than Michael Cimino’s had flopped. Heaven’s Gate is still code for a cinematic debacle, although there have been flops since, most of which involve comic book movies, that make it look almost minor league by comparison. (Pluto Nash, anybody?) And of course, we’re always hearing about how studios don’t make more small-budget indie films because people won’t watch them. They don’t want something like Sofia Coppola’s arty and downbeat Lost in Translation. They want another Tron.
Except…except Lost in Translation grossed more than $130 million, on a budget of just four million.
If you were a stock picker and you found a security selling for four bucks that returned 130 bucks, even Warren Buffett would be impressed. So, of course, the studios are just hammering on Sofia Coppola’s door wanting more, right?
If Tron did the same kind of business relative to its cost, you’d have seen ten more Trons, a Tron TV series, Tron: The Musical, Tron On Ice, Planet of the Trons, and Bella Swan Meets Tron by now. But nobody wants a little Sofia Coppola film to lead the way. They’d rather keep believing their industry will be saved by the next based-on-the-Happy-Meal flick in which Keanu Reeves or Will Smith stares down some monster with a snappy one-liner short enough to fit at the top of a movie poster or fast food placemat.
Despite the string of big-budget box office failures, the CGI houses are still overloaded with work. Despite the lame performance of Men in Black II, Men in Black III is coming soon. Despite the fact that Nicholas Cage has been losing studios money for ten years, his calendar is still full. Despite the fact that actors like Cage and Beckinsale and Anne Hathaway and Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson and so many others came to our attention in substantive roles that requires nuance and richness and acting chops, they’ve chosen, now that they’re “A-list,” to don leather catsuits and play interchangeable superheroes and villains, or do movies where they’re fleeing a slasher with a knife, or a vampire, or a werewolf, or maybe all three at the same time.
A majority of these movies will go on to lose money—many of them colossal amounts of money, enough to feed Africa for a year—and studios will often rejigger their budgets by cutting smaller, non-CGI films out of their schedule to make up the difference. “Films like We Need To Talk About Kevin aren’t profitable,” they’ll say, while ignoring all the big films they greenlighted that did far worse. It reminds me of another phenomenon of the ’80s, the American auto makers saying the U.S. didn’t want small cars, you couldn’t sell them, don’t blame us for not trying. Then Japan kicked our asses, and we still haven’t recovered. “You can’t sell two-seater sportscars in America,” GM said to justify the failure of its horrible Fiero, only to have Mazda premiere the Miata shortly thereafter and make a mint.
Supposedly Alcoholics Anonymous has a saying, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result.” Maybe all of Hollywood ought to check itself in.