If there is anything axiomatic in the motion picture business, it is this: the only constant is change. It’s present in many guises: aesthetic and formal change-- even in the embedded grammar and structure of movies, eruptive technological change, driven by intersecting equipment and information transformations, but most ominously for those trying to stay “ahead of the curve,” it is the unpredictable, disruptive change in distribution and exhibition models—the very how and why our movies are shown. It is the last of these, the how and why, that author Lynda Obst addresses in her new book, Sleepless in Hollywood, subtitled Tales from the New Abnormal in the Movie Business.
Ms. Obst is a highly respected, extremely passionate, and articulate producer of mainstream Hollywood movies. She was an editor at The New York Times before moving to Hollywood, beginning as an associate producer on Flashdance. She produced The Fisher King, Sleepless in Seattle, Contact, The Siege. I worked with her on the 2003 romantic comedy How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days. Ms. Obst is currently producing Chris Nolan’s Interstellar. Her perspective on recent seismic shifts in motion picture production may come from the aerie of an insider, but it is grounded in the reality of production. She may have this point of view of directives from inside film studios and their conglomerates (being close friends to dozens of the industry’s top decision makers), but she is also a real “set dog.” Her journalist’s beating heart has compelled her to ask why so many of the movies we now see opening every weekend have become so uniformly unoriginal and predictable in their styles, themes and non-congruence with any real life experience.
Obst insists that Hollywood has always been “abnormal,” that the way movies have been made for over a century does not readily conform to anyone’s “normal” business template. Movies may have always been a business, albeit a chaotic one, with generation after generation of movies being made by maverick figures who otherwise found no easy fit in larger corporate America. But movies have also always been more than commerce. Men and women of diverse backgrounds, with conflicting and overlapping goals and dreams, have been the engines that—passionately and, despite all odds—have created a rich tapestry of films appealing to audiences of many warps and woofs. This cloth of many colors is what Obst calls the “old abnormal.” What she explores in her savvy, colloquial book is what she dubs “The New Abnormal.”
The "New Abnormal" is an apt label that helps define what kinds of movies constitute much major studio production today. Her analysis is not simply a dispassionate Ken Auletta style New Yorker essay on the fleeting highlights of a passing trend. Obst is sussing out something more fundamental—what filmmakers see happening right here in front of them during the last decade--- what hovers ominously as the present, even future template for filmmaking. It is this paradigm that producers struggling to get a greenlight on a longtime beloved project, and what those of us down in the trenches who write, design, shoot, score, mix, and edit movies, have seen developing in the past decade. It is not a pretty sight to behold if you have any regard for what movies may have meant to you since you were a child.
According to a chart Obst offers on page 34: as far back as 1981, seven of the top ten grossing films were “originals.” In 2011, there were none. Bridesmaids clocked in as the first original film of 2011—at #14. And eight of the top ten grossers that year were sequels. So, what happened? To get a broad perspective from the inside, Obst talked to many top movie producers and executives. Her findings are confirmation of a few simple, easily read facts.
As DVD sales plummeted in the past decade, Amazon, Netflix and other internet viewing platforms have ascended. Piracy on the net and via illegal street DVDs in Asia took a toll on movie revenue, not unlike what happened a decade before to CD music. As a response, studio sages sought out new income streams to make up the losses. A key statistic proved to be this: the longtime near static percentage of box offices movie grosses coming from international markets was 20%. Domestic grosses were 80%. But in the past decade those numbers have flipped. According to Obst, current revenue is up to 80% foreign, with a modest 20% domestic. This turnabout didn’t just happen by accident. The “how” gets to the very core of why we today make many of the movies that assault us every weekend with the sound and fury of their overwrought VFX and their buffoonish, inarticulate characters.
Marketing surveys began to reveal that foreign audiences responded greatly to movies with international casts, and featuring anchoring American leads, movies that also offered exotic, i.e. foreign, locations, especially in those markets that also produced great box office—and crucially, were also in 3-D. While not currently red hot in the United States (except for animated movies) 3-D seems to be de rigueur abroad, especially in Asia. Also, obliging American studios have begun shooting extra scenes in foreign countries that are meant to be exhibited only in those home markets. Conversely, viewer surveys of these ever engorging markets reveal little interest in purely American themes and stories, tales of American history and experience—especially intimate stories, especially domestic dramas, and especially rural-set “dirt” movies: small town dramas and Westerns. Yet, these same no-nos had been for decades the very staples of American filmmaking, certainly a dominant strain of movies that my generation had come of age viewing. That model is now headed toward the cinematic dustbin.
Obst talks about the primacy of “pre-awareness” as a key ingredient to getting a movie greenlit today. The simple truth is that ginning up audience awareness just prior to a movie’s release, if started from near ground zero, is challenging and expensive in today’s market. But, a movie that springs from a bestselling book, from the domain of pop culture video games, or from graphic novels and comics, or comes with high social media visibility, is already “pre-sold.” This awareness curve gets up to warp speed with the entry of studio marketing wizards—the once quiet back office nerds, now newly transfigured into front and center stars—injected into the process, not at the point of deciding how to sell a recently shot film (as it was in the old days of the previous decades)—but right up front at the embryonic conceptual stage. For Ms. Obst, the marketing wizards are now the de facto arbiters of what movies get made and which don’t. Let’s be clear about one basic tenet here. Aesthetics, dramatic complexity and nuance of character, and script originality, are not notably relevant factors in this decision process. Return on investment rules. And “pre-awareness” is a crucial element. Is moviemaking a business or—is it a business? And many of our otherwise most intelligent and esteemed studio executives are hostage to this mandate by their conglomerates.
The East European Jews who largely invented the Hollywood system may have been shrewd businessmen—but they also loved movies, and many of these marginally educated moguls were still close to a centuries’ old cultural continuity that respected the arts, the thirst for knowledge, and social responsibility and ethics wrapped up in the often broad homilies of family dramas. There was an unspoken consensus that because movies were the popular art form of the 20th century, the weekly studio releases should be both broad based and narrow, focused on different socio-economic-ethnic-cultural communities while highlighting the shared aspirations of the entire nation. The challenges of an apocalyptic world war in the middle of the studios' golden era may have further molded the image of a united people. In any case, Americans went to the movies; they went every week.
This inevitably began to fall apart with the advent of television, then what was menacingly called “Pay-TV,” followed by home video on murky video cassette tapes, but burst forth brightly and cleanly with the emergence of pristine DVDs, then with video games and the internet, and today with the always switched-on dominance of social media platforms. All this would seem to promise a new era for filmmakers, but some believe this constant interconnectivity masks a kind of solipsism, even narcissism. And with the anticipated rollout of 4K home video with even larger and higher resolution screens, the lure of the dark cave at home becomes more seductive—no audience, no community, except the illusory one of texts and tweets.
Escape from the home environment may become even more than before the privilege and refuge of the young—of the much sought after “under 24” male and female quadrants. Cinema content is rapidly becoming a self-fulfilling litany of sequels, reboots, and franchises in cycles that re-spawn every ten years—appealing anew to every half-generation. The rest of us—what used to be “the audience” may still be served by what Obst calls “Oscar bait” to gorge on between Labor Day and Christmas; but these movies are mere appetizers on the buffet table of the Cinema Casinos.
Obst seems to be presenting herself as a genial Cassandra—seer of the “New Abnormal,” but somehow, still in her heart she very much hopes for the continuance of movie diversity. In the meantime, like many filmmakers above and below the line, she is re-creating herself in cable television—a place she views as much more open, even desirous of adult themed and controversial material. For years, much of the best screenwriting has been moving to cable television series that can develop multiple, intersecting, ambivalent and challenging relationships among complex adult characters—storylines that flourish, unravel and resolve during the course of a full season’s episodes.
In the world of leviathan budgeted, high stakes "Casino Cinema" it is the thoughtful and well crafted cable series that are the low risk game, while the major studios throw caution to the winds placing high risk/high gain bets on the roulette wheel of sequels, reboots and franchises.
This summer’s uneven, and to some, dismaying report card on the grosses of studio tentpole movies have surely put a damper on some marketing premises that selling a movie is much like selling any other consumer-manufactured product. But movie history tells us that conclusion is pure hubris, that selling a movie, even with complete four-quadrant “pre-awareness” is not like selling Budweiser or Doritos during Super Bowl commercial breaks. There were plenty of movie teasers on last February's Super Bowl weekend to blend with the expensive spots for beer, chips, and cars. But that didn’t seem to keep a distressing number of these cinematic behemoths from underperforming this summer—even after allowing for revenues from foreign exhibition. Is it too much to think that there might be a bit of second-guessing this fall in studio conference rooms and executive suites? Is it too much to hope that mainstream producers with successful track records like Lynda Obst and others now sitting out in the penalty box, may be invited back onto the ice to produce the kinds of movies that graced thousands of screens before the cataclysm that Obst calls “The Great Contraction?”
Sadly, the immediate horizon is not a glowing one; the production pipeline for these labyrinthine, robotic tentpole movies seems inexorable; even with a re-valuation of the current scene, these lumbering brutes are apt to stalk us for several more seasons, even if we could wish them vaporized by one humongous VFX. There is hope, though, that leaner, more lithesome “tadpole” movies (as Obst dubs them) can maneuver around the small but vulnerable openings that may crack open as the tentpoles splinter.
Last year, I found myself in the position to lament the dearth of movies like those that I built a career on, movies that had once been major studio “A” films, with “A” budgets and “A” stars—movies that if they could get made at all today—are not of even passing interest to some major studios. One route is to lament the demise of “cinema.” The pronouncement of my friend Paul Schrader from a few years ago, “Cinema is dead,” seems like a prophetic epitaph. Paul was referring to the century old tradition of films as art, the popular art of the 20th century. True, the 20th century was rapidly retreating from view but we all wanted to believe that somehow movies as “cinema” would survive deep into the 21st century. Clearly, this idea is no longer even up for debate. Philip Lopate’s great essay, Anticipation of La Notte: The Heroic Age of Moviegoing, must now be read as requiem. Scholar Tino Balio’s 2010 University of Wisconsin Press book The Foreign Film Renaissance on American Screens is an incisive look at that near three decade euphoric period when a new Rossellini, Bergman, Fellini, Godard, Bertolucci release would have Monday morning water cooler conversational cachet (if not box office) that is reserved today for Harry Potter, Twilight or Batman.
Yes, we can simply lament the “New Abnormal”—or we can work around it. If a few dozen movies do escape the juggernaut of summer tentpoles and make it to the multiplexes between May and August, if movies about real situations with real characters do somehow fight their way through in drips throughout the year, and have some kind of flow during the year-end Oscar race, then we will still find a place.
I have alternated mainstream feature films with documentaries and independent and experimental movies, films like A Brief History of Time, Incident at Loch Ness, Via Dolorosa—films not widely seen but vital markers in my own personal canon. As long as I can continue to photograph these quieter films amid the VFX mayhem erupting lava-like around me, I will continue doing what I love most: photographing movies I can bear to look at years later. On a professional level, I decided to change agency representation from one where I had been for almost 25 years, to another but similar sized one, a place that seemed better able to help me find those elusive “tadpole” movies that Obst lauds. Last year, I photographed four of them, the most films I have ever done in a single year, all budgeted in the $3-$7 million range. Two of them were accepted into Sundance this past January, and were acquired for distribution. One of them, The Way Way Back, won in a bidding war by Fox Searchlight, has become an unlikely summer success story and a kind of beacon to filmmakers who have good stories to tell, stories that can appeal to a mainstream audience, but stories which are difficult to get off the launch pad.
Nat Faxon and Jim Rash had shopped the script for The Way Way Back for nine years, a script that was high on everybody's should do list--- but without suitors. They secured financing of under $5 million only after winning Oscars for their screenplay of Alexander Payne's The Descendents. Using the release pattern of Juno and Little Miss Sunshine as a guide, Searchlight has given the Steve Carell/Toni Collette starring film an unusual release pattern: 19 screens on the opening weekend of July 5, 79 in the second, 304 in the third, 800 in the fourth, and 1000 screens on the fifth week. This strategy is one way of using a slow awareness, built by word of mouth, to counter the advertising deluge of tentpole movies, that either hit or miss on opening weekend. The film is now in its eighth week of release.
It is reassuring that a film like The Way Way Back can be released by the "boutique" wing of a major studio with the thoughtful care that used to be the exhibition norm, when a film didn't have to hit a home run on its opening weekend-- or die. I have three more tadpole films that will roll out in the next few months. May they have a similar fate.
The motion picture business was hard hit by the tsunami of DVD sales, the 2008 writers’ strike, and the national Great Recession: a perfect storm trifecta. This congery of misfortunes has altered profoundly the present filmmaking environment. But just as clearly, the mindless recycling of vacuous action movies and ever more cartoonish visual effects will also run its course. What happens next is most likely what has always happened: more change, maybe possibly even an understanding by movie studios that the narrative depth of many cable series has something to offer to feature films.
There are some, confident of their primacy as arbiters of movie markets and consumer taste, who say that you can either get on board the “New Abnormal” express or get off. Not wanting to buy a ticket on that train, some veteran filmmakers have left the platform. But there is another possibility: that of the stowaway who, “rides the rails” below the boxcars. Isn't that where the real adventure is?