Hollywood's conservatism: why no one wants to make a "risky" movie

Noting that this year's film lineup sports "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," Mark Harris writes in GQ about the "death of the great American art form," the cinema.

Harris blames the fact that arty, story-driven movies don't bear rewatching the way that blockbusters do (and thus are less likely to earn a lot on DVD sales). I think that the real culprit is the cheap money bubble of the past decade, which fuelled an arms race that made a virtue out of spending money on a film's production. I remember covering Lost in Space for the Sci-Fi Channel's magazine and the press materials all stressed that this was the most expensive film the studio had ever made, as though that were some sort of selling point.

When the credit bubble started to make ever-greater sums available to the studio system, suddenly every movie seemed to break the $50M barrier, and no one wants to risk that kind of money on an unproven product:

Such an unrelenting focus on the sell rather than the goods may be why so many of the dispiritingly awful movies that studios throw at us look as if they were planned from the poster backward rather than from the good idea forward. Marketers revere the idea of brands, because a brand means that somebody, somewhere, once bought the thing they're now trying to sell. The Magic 8 Ball (tragically, yes, there is going to be a Magic 8 Ball movie) is a brand because it was a toy. Pirates of the Caribbean is a brand because it was a ride. Harry Potter is a brand because it was a series of books. Jonah Hex is a brand because it was a comic book. (Here lies one fallacy of putting marketers in charge of everything: Sometimes they forget to ask if it's a good brand.) Sequels are brands. Remakes are brands. For a good long stretch, movie stars were considered brands; this was the era in which magazines like Premiere attempted to quantify the waxing or waning clout of actors and actresses from year to year because, to the industry, having the right star seemed to be the ultimate hedge against failure.

But after three or four hundred cases in which that didn't prove out, Hollywood's obsession with star power has started to erode. In the last several years, a new rule of operation has taken over: The movie itself has to be the brand. And because a brand is, by definition, familiar, a brand is also, by definition, not original. The fear of nonbranded movies can occasionally approach the ridiculous, as it did in 2006 when Martin Scorsese's The Departed was widely viewed within the industry as a "surprise" hit, primarily because of its R rating and unfamiliar source material. It may not have been a brand, but, says its producer Graham King, "Risky? With the guy I think is the greatest living director and Nicholson, Matt Damon, Wahlberg, and Leo? If you're at a studio and you can't market that movie, then you shouldn't be in business."

Hollywood's conservatism: why no one wants to make a "risky" movie (via Kottke)


  1. I hope this isn’t too topic-drifty, but I wonder why a similar sort of infection has taken over the cable TV networks.

    History, Discovery, Nat Geo, their entire line up seems to now consist of “Rednecks Sorting Through Junk and Operating Heavy Machinery” to the extent that almost nothing of quality remains.

    1. @Wally Ballou: I’ve noticed the rise of white trash reality shows as well. They make me think of propaganda directed towards the unemployed who have nothing better to do than watch other people work on TV. The message: You’ll have to lower your expectations and living standards like these guys if you want to work.

    2. History, Discovery, Nat Geo, their entire line up seems to now consist of “Rednecks Sorting Through Junk and Operating Heavy Machinery” to the extent that almost nothing of quality remains.

      I totally agree. I think the most tragic part of this is that these particular channels (along with TLC, A&E, etc.) used to be dedicated to relatively high-minded educational fare. They were all founded to combat the perception of television as just a convenient sewer into which we flush the growing minds of our children.

      Not too dissimilar from one channel that used to identify itself as Music Television.

    3. “History, Discovery, Nat Geo, their entire line up seems to now consist of “Rednecks Sorting Through Junk and Operating Heavy Machinery” to the extent that almost nothing of quality remains.”

      This is partly why i downgraded to just net service. With ‘SyFy’ turning to dreck (wrestling?! wtfh??) and the ever encroaching junk on the above mentioned above, I have near nihil of a use cable tv.

  2. I really hope that, with the advent of really good low budget independent films competing via other distribution systems, ‘Hollywood’ may get it’s act together.

    I am tired of remakes: the best films I have seen in the last decade were all independent or foreign animation or both.

    I am old enough to long for “the good old days”.

    If any film makers are reading, I highly suggest having a look at ‘Bleak House’ (which is much funnier than it sounds). Written by an absolutely amazing writer (Charles Dickens), it actually has enough material (good material) for a two year TV series. A lengthy but hysterical romp of a movie might also work.

  3. Fortunately it’s a big pond, and there are people out there still making “risky” movies. The internet assures that they can get the word out and people can find them.

    Yes it’s a bad situation if you define success as making billions of dollars, and I like poking fun at Hollywood just as much as anyone else, but box office take is not the only ruler to be measuring with.

  4. A couple of other reasons:

    The Hollywood studios see the U.S. as only one of many markets. They want to make movies that will sell all around the world, and this is the result. Some of the big-budget, big star action movies that tanked here have made fortunes internationally. Dramas don’t travel as well, and most comedies don’t translate at all, which is why there are fewer of them than ever.

    As for the many-sequeled movies, or as the studios think of them, “franchises”… In many cases they’ll sign a roster of big name stars for the first one, with options for movies to follow. The succeeding movies in the series are more cheaply made, with a smaller roster of names. And then you get the prequel, where younger (cheaper) actors play the same characters. The quality usually goes down, but not so much that the profits don’t come rolling in, a lot coming from those international markets. What U.S. audiences and critics think isn’t that important anymore.

    1. Woody Allen’s movies translate well. Inter alia, they’re about ideas, grounded in history, and don’t rely on slang.

  5. I’m waiting for “Tetris, The Movie!”

    “Look out! There’s big box falling!”

    ad nauseum

  6. Well who isn’t going to be on the sure thing?

    But seriously, you forgot a movie like Sucker Punch which is due out later this month. It’ll probably get shit reviews, and not pull in a lot at the theater, but I bet it’ll have decent residual DVD/BR sales.

    Now when is Crank 3 due out?

  7. I think we have developed an absolute avoidance of real drama.

    So-called “arty” movies actually do bear re-watching. In fact, the good movies get better the more one watches them.

    Americans are tending more and more to use movies as an escape. We are like drug addicts; the more we escape, the more we are afraid of reality, and the more we need to escape. It gets to the point where people cannot handle any movie in which there might be real surprise, or a real feeling of drama.

    We watch blockbusters, where you all know exactly what will happen, when it will happen, and who it will happen to. It is, literally, a “roller coaster ride,” where you are just along watching the guns go off and the blood get spilled and the bad guys get killed.

    So-called “art” films are more like strange reality rides, odd reflections of our existence. Since many people don’t even want to think about the details of their own existence, it gets hard to engage in any reflection of it. Complexity is too difficult.

    This being the internet, I’m sure I’ll get massive disagreement for making strong statements which involve generalizations, as though I don’t realize that there are exceptions. I would point to Inception as one.

    1. Reminds me how people would pay to go into a movie theater and just sit thru just about anything as it was something of an escape from the life outside the building.

  8. My favorite example is “The Scorpion King 2: Rise of a Warrior.”

    It’s a direct-to-DVD prequel to a spinoff of a sequel to a remake of a movie based on an urban legend inspired by real events.

  9. This might be non-boing of me to say, and I will be hatered on by the technorati, but I think technology has killed movies the way it killed radio, theater, etc. Most teens and 20-somethings find it really hard to sit in a theater where they can’t be texting. They can’t sit still to watch a drama. Their brains have been re-wired. So the studios make essentially faced-paced CG-driven drivel to keep their attention. With a very few exceptions, everything else just can’t find an audience.

    The other reason that re-makes of pre-existing properties works is it cuts down on the marketing money. An original movie is a question mark in the mind of someone going to spend $15 on a ticket, but if the movie is based on a toy or a TV show they’ve heard of, they know exactly what they are in for.

  10. I don’t think “The Departed” is a particularly good counter-example, since it’s also an adaptation (though in this case of a Hong-Kong movie). Even though it’s not a brand in North America, it’s still not original content.

    1. This.

      It always bothers me when people think “The Departed” was an amazing film have never even taken the time to see the original “Infernal Affairs”

      Although strangely enough along the franchise thinking…Infernal Affairs did get a sequel and a prequel.

    2. meh.. the article says the source material is unfamiliar, which is true. It might as well be original to western audiences.

  11. Just for frame of reference- was there EVER a time when most big-budget Hollywood blockbusters weren’t based on established brands? “The Wizard of Oz,” “Gone With the Wind,” “The Ten Commandments,” and almost every other film I associate with what people consider “The Golden Age of Hollywood” was based on either a bestselling book or a stage performance. (Or a stage adaptation of a bestselling book.)

    There have always been exceptions- “Citizen Kane” comes to mind, even if it was loosely biographical. But at least two of last year’s big-budget hits (“Avatar” and “Inception”) were based on original screenplays too.

      1. You’re entitled to your opinion of course, but by those standards “Jurassic Park” could be considered an unauthorized adaptation of “Gertie the Dinosaur.”

        1. Nah… Jurassic Park has always been Crichton plagiarizing his own work from Westworld.

          But with your two examples of Inception and Avatar, the similarities to previous works are way to close to ignore out right and consider themselves “original” work. But then, we can easily start the whole “there are no more original ideas” argument.

          1. I never said “original work”, I said “original screenplays.” I don’t believe any movie in the history of filmography was based on a wholly original idea.

          2. I guess I am just confused then where you draw the line between “original screenplay” and “inspired/drawn from/remake of.”

            And while I can’t necessarily think of an idea off hand, I think claiming that there isn’t a wholly original idea in the history of filmography is a bit short sighted.

          3. I guess I am just confused then where you draw the line between “original screenplay” and “inspired/drawn from/remake of.”

            Since I’m not sure a clear line can even be drawn at all, I’ll just defer to whatever criteria the Academy uses to determine eligibility for “Best Original Screenplay” vs. “Best Adapted Screenplay.”

            @Donald Petersen: “Being John Malkovich” was certainly a unique and imaginative film. But Charlie Kaufman himself described it as being “a story about a man who falls in love with a woman who is not his wife,” so it can’t really be said to be a wholly original idea.

          4. I don’t believe any movie in the history of filmography was based on a wholly original idea.

            Certainly not Inception. Maybe Being John Malkovich?

    1. (“Avatar” and “Inception”) were based on original screenplays too.

      Maybe but Inception looks a lot like “A Dream of Wessex” by Christopher Priest.

      1. Cosmetically and possibly thematically, yes. Given that Nolan has already adapted one of Priest’s novels, it’s not unlikely he was influenced by him. I certainly haven’t seen Priest claim that he was copied or that Inception was derivative.

        I mean, “A Dream within a Dream” came from Poe. It’s what’s done with the idea that makes it significant. The concept of it, less so.

  12. I don’t argue with anything here, other than the assumption that simply because something is ret-conned, prequeled or a sequel, it is crap. I like seeing certain characters (in certain movies) over and over again. It builds on mythologies in some cases, and certain characters, IMHO, demand further exploration.
    I think the reason (this is just from having spent time with industry types) we see so few ‘original’ ideas is because 1) the execs are very young and often their first exposure to a mythology is based on sequel like “Phantom Menace” 2) because of technical advances, one can make a film awesome for much cheaper than before, and audiences are suffering from awesomeness-fatigue. We are simply not ‘wowed’ like we used to be. 3) and this reason is “out there”: our education system has been broken so long, it is producing writers with very little capacity for originality, simply because they were not exposed to a lot of great literature in school. Therefore, every ‘great’ idea they have seems tepid at best when compared to the breadth of literature and knowledge a lot of older people have been exposed to.
    The way to achieve excitement in a film has little to do with showy set-pieces these days, but instead with wit, heart and creativity.

  13. Wouldn’t “risky” films be the polar opposite from very risk-averse projects based on pre-existing products? Where’s the happy medium? What if I don’t want just art-house or just Marvel comics movies? I like risky films too once in a while but it seems like just a straight ahead decent and reasonably intelligent genre film is hard to come by these days.

  14. Also re: Inception being original. One should look at the Satoshi Kon anime “Paprika” (Nolan himself has even admitted that there are bits he took from it)

  15. This piece seems to confirm the experience of Terry Gilliam: (taken from his IMDB page)

    You would think that there’s intelligent life in Hollywood. But then you discover that there’s just fear. People are frightened of making decisions or even having – I hate to use the word “vision”, but they lack all of that. Hollywood is run by Goldman Sachs and not by entrepreneurs or studio people. It’s the bankers who look at the numbers… Somehow the whole place has been taken over by middle management, like the rest of the Western world. And bureaucracy has settled in very comfortably.

    1. As my wife the screenwriter likes to say, “Nobody ever got fired in Hollywood for saying ‘no’.”

    2. Re: your Gilliam quote.

      I love Terry Gilliam, but watching Lost in La Mancha makes it very clear that his lack of personal restraint (or a producer he trusts enough to reign him in) is the primary source of his career troubles. He wants endless money and endless freedom, and whines like a child when either isn’t granted unconditionally. Don’t blame hollywood for being afraid. Blame Terry for his inability to bring a movie in on budget.

      Somehow Robert Altman managed to make movies all through the 80’s and 90’s, even (and especially) during periods when his star had faded. How? He understood that movies cost money, and he was willing and able to set a budget and stick to it. Altman never made a safe movie. He made a ton of boring, unsuccessful (artistically speaking, not commercially) films, but never safe films.

      Movies are incredibly difficult to make. But somehow they get made. I’ve said it a million times in this post, but I’ll say it again: if you want to see better movies, go and make them. Stop complaining. Take initiative.

  16. Harris’ article is all kinds of hack-y. Hardly any facts or interviews in there.

    Whether or not something is a pre-sold franchise has little to do with the quality of the film. The storytelling is the thing. The real problem is that corporate boards have absorbed most of the power from producers. Good producers used to be able to cultivate and shepherd a story to maturity. They lack that power now.

  17. An ironic example, considering “the Departed” was a shot by shot remake of an Asian film, a la The Ring-Ringu!

    I am disgusted with the movies that are on offer this year–enough remakes already! Hopefully someone in Hollywood realizes the value of originality, and we get some more films like District 9 and Inception.

  18. Agreeing with, and adding a bit to, Woid’s comment… According to a recent story in The Economist (http://www.economist.com/node/18178291), the non-domestic market has far outstripped the North American market. Ten years ago, North American ticket sales amounted to roughly half the global total; since then, the NA box office has been stagnant while global demand has risen steadily. Now, roughly two-thirds of box office revenues come from “the rest of the world,” with demand growing especially in Russia and Asia.

    Naturally, this means that dialogue-driven films are a tremendous risk. Action flicks are ideal, because there’s not much to translate. Comedies tend to rely on crude physical humor, because a groin kick is good for a laugh everywhere.

    Recent examples of films that did poorly in America but succeeded overseas: the Jack Black version of “Gulliver’s Travels” ($42M domestically, $150M elsewhere), “Prince of Persia” and the latest installment of the Narnia series.

    Given the continuing trend of worldwide ticket sales, we can expect to see more and more movies that avoid dialogue as much as possible.

  19. Cory, you’re just jealous Scalzi got a movie deal, aren’t ya? Huh? C’mon, ‘fess up. (I’m not serious, just joshin’ ya.)

    Seriously, haven’t we seen this phenomena grow since the 70s? Hasn’t every succeeding generation moaned about the fact that Hollywood puts too much money in special effects extravaganzas and not enough into low-budget, dramatic movies? I would like to see a resurgence in indies, like we had in the 90s, but as others have noted in this comment thread, the little dramas *are* still getting made. Just not by Hollywood.

  20. I kind of hate articles like this. You can list all the sequels and prequels and comic book movies you like, but if you aren’t making some kind of comparison to other times, that list is meaningless.

    I was going to be all clever and talk about how the same kind of thing was happening in 1985, with its Stallone franchises, Horror sequels, two theatrically released movies based on greeting card lines, and of course Back To The Future, which ended on a bigger cliffhanger then pretty much any of the big franchises of today. But of course, that’s actually about when Harris dates this whole decline to, so I guess the joke’s on me.

    Of course, we could go back even further; as we all know from Ed Wood, there was a time when movies actually were designed from posters.

    Although you could then argue that movies like “I Was A Teenage Werewolf” were never meant to be huge grossing movies that would offset the cost of movies that didn’t have any saucer men or giant grasshoppers.

    I guess that’s what bothers me about this; you probably actually could construct a convincing, historical argument for the idea that Hollywood is more risk averse and in love with sequels then it ever has been, but there’s no need to bother, because “things aren’t as good as they used to be” is such a crowd pleasing opinion that you don’t actually need to justify it.

  21. Let’s be careful, though, about those numbers. Overseas gross returns are not the same as direct profits. While ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ may have made $150M overseas, those returns had to be shared with a variety of distributors and investors in those markets. It does not translate to a 1:1 addition to the profitability of the movie.

    Further, I’m not sure I understand how it’s being posited that we’re suddenly in this wasteland of crap. WE ALWAYS HAVE BEEN. That people forget how many shitty movies have historically been made doesn’t mean there haven’t been.

    Sure, everyone remembers 1977 for “Star Wars”, “Annie Hall”, “Close Encounters” and “A Bridge Too Far”. But the second-highest grossing film of the year was “Smokey and the Bandit”….hardly the stuff of high-brow endeavors. It had two movie sequels and three TV sequels, you may or more likely may NOT recall. How about the far less remembered “Great Smokey Roadblock?” starring Henry Fonda? Did you also recall that 1977 gave us “Kingdom of the Spiders”, the William Shatner magnum opus featuring a VW Bug disguised as a giant spider? How about “Exorcist II: The Heretic”? The Car? Orca? Demon Seed? Damnation Alley? Empire of the Ants? Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo? The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training?

    Seriously, I’m not saying Hollywood doesn’t make drek. They make it in droves. I’m just saying THEY ALWAYS HAVE.

    1. Yeah. On the one hand I get that there’s a lot more competition for movies now, with TV and Video Games and the Internet, and the home experience is superior to the theater for a lot of people. The idea that to differentiate theaters have to move to spectacle makes sense. But Jesus, tons of sequels and adaptations are nothing new, we just forget the crappy ones from 5 decades ago. All my favorite movies from the ’30s and ’40s are based on books or plays, and several had sequels.

    2. Did you also recall that 1977 gave us “Kingdom of the Spiders”, the William Shatner magnum opus featuring a VW Bug disguised as a giant spider? How about “Exorcist II: The Heretic”? The Car? Orca? Demon Seed? Damnation Alley? Empire of the Ants? Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo? The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training?

      I’m almost ashamed to admit it, but 1977… man, that was one hell of a year!

      Maybe it helped to be seven years old.

  22. The whole purpose for making movies now is to bust the opening week record. When a movie comes out, that’s the first and foremost thing you hear about it: How much money it made that week. It’s just a competition for ticket sales. I mean, we all know that some topics/stories would NOT cater to the average, mainstream movie-going demographics, but that does not mean it has no value whatsoever. There is value in diversity, creativity and culture (I know: What culture, right?). And you don’t need *millions* to make a good film. Then again, I’m not so sure that Hollywood really ever cared about art and culture in the first place.

    @Wally Ballou- Yeah, we think that the arts are in poor shape until we look at SCIENCE. Looking at their current lineup online, I see that Discovery has no less that FOUR series about cars, FOUR series about explosions/destroying shit, a GHOST show and half a dozen shows about salvage/junkyards and machinery… If your idea of science goes beyond vehicles and tetanus, and if you’re 8 years-old, you’re in luck: There’s a Daily Planet in there that you’ll miss if you blink.

    The Science Channel is pretty much more machinery, plus a show about catapulting pumpkins. Christ. I wouldn’t think of that if I were making it up.

    1. Animal Planet has a ghost show too. :( I’m still confused about how they’re justifying that content. Plus, how many animal cops or hoarding shows do we really need?

  23. First, only on a “things were better in the old days” post could you come across someone decrying Inception as the death of originality in cinema.

    There are so many counterarguments to this, but let’s stick to the obvious one:

    A selection of highly regarded films from 1936 to 1939: You Can’t Take It With You, Gone With The Wind, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Wuthering Heights, The Wizard of Oz , Lost Horizon, Pygmalion, Captains Courageous, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, My Man Godfrey, Destry Rides Again, The Good Earth, The Hound of the Baskervilles, Of Mice and Men, Gunga Din …

    How about comic strips? Skippy kind of kicked this off in 1929 (and had a sequel Sooky the following year). Tailspin Tommy came out in 1934. There was a Blondie film in 1938, Flash Gordon in ’36, Dick Tracy in ’37, Buck Rogers and Mandrake the Magician in ’39, Terry and the Pirates and Lil Abner in 1940, Captain Marvel in 1941, Superman in 1948, Batman and Robin in 1949, Gasoline Alley in 1951, Prince Valiant in ’54 …

    How about radio shows? Amos and Andy in 1930, Little Orphan Annie in 1932, The Green Hornet in ’36, The Lone Ranger in 1938, Ma and Pa Kettle in 1947 (with 14 sequels to follow!), Dr. Kildare gave us 9 films

    Oh, and since we’re talking “sequels” so disparagingly, need we even mention that there were over *30* full-length Blondie films made between 1938 and 1950? How about the 18 Andy Hardy movies? All those Tarzan films?

    Hollywood has ever been thus.

  24. Um, excuse me, but it’s “One sequel (adapted from an awesome book that would have been better served by not forcing it into an already established franchise, but it’s okay because Tim Powers is probably getting an major payday which he totally deserves) to a sequel to a sequel to a movie based on an amusement-park ride.”

  25. One of the best reviewed and most popular movies last year: Toy Story 3

    Not all sequels are crap.

    But, I’m still looking for something new, like I felt with: Pi, City of Lost Children, Kooyanisquatsi (sp?), Blue Velvet, Princess Mononoke, and Reservoir Dogs

    Damn, gotta go back to work

  26. I fear that some day Hollywood starts harvesting Manga brands and turns them to the same boring and safe PG-13 poo they have made ever since the early 90’s.

    p.s. Departed was a remake, even if Scorsese and his fans refuse to admit that.

  27. OK, WizarDru, I’m not your friend anymore.

    Because The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training is AWESOME.

  28. Just because Hollywood makes summer blockbusters doesn’t mean art house films don’t get made.
    There’s probably an argument to make that the big hits fund the smaller movies. And they’re both fun to watch depending on your mood. Somtimes you just want to sitt there and watch stuff blow up with cheesy oneliners and sometimes you want something more inteligent or interesting.
    There’s room for both.

  29. And while we’re on the subject, the author seems to think that the summer blockbuster was invented in in 1976 and that studio meddling or conservatism was a new thing.

    Maybe he needs to read more about Rod Serling. Maybe he needs to watch a documentary about the making of the Planet of the Apes.

    He also suggests that there is no room in schedules for smart films or small films. He suggests that no SF movie as ‘somber’ as Alien could be made today. Apparently he’s never heard of ‘Moon’ or ‘Sunshine’ or ‘Solaris’, to name a few (odd theme, there).

    Maybe he failed to notice films like ‘the kids are all right’ being nominated for Best Picture? Maybe he missed crazy films like Scott Pilgrim getting made? It looks like he’s writing in some weird vacuum.

  30. Cory
    Correction needed.
    Whose arm had a race?
    I think you meant “arms race” not “arm’s race”.


  31. I’ve always considered the amount of output from a creative industry that I enjoy is a function of that industry’s -total- output. If a lot less crap was getting made, it would probably mean the industry was producing fewer things I enjoy as well.

    And I don’t expect my highly individual tastes to dictate what others should get to see anyway. If more exploding trucks is what the average moviegoer wants, who am I to say they shouldn’t go see “Exploding Trucks 12 : The Truckinator Rides Again One More Time!”

  32. The basic problem here is that movies are too big to fail, so any that might possibly fail never get started. It’s the same in video games, but there’s a big difference there: The big hits, the ones that stick in people’s minds forever? The Dooms, X-Coms, Minecrafts and Dwarf Fortresses? Made by teams you could fit in a phone booth. I propose that video games and movies should take the money they spend on big-budget productions on dozens or even hundreds of smaller projects, and watch a couple of them make it all back. If somebody makes a good film on that budget, give him the same budget and more control, he obviously knows his shit.

  33. I can’t believe that more people aren’t decrying the costs of going to the theater. I agree with most of the posters here that Hollywood has always made crap, but the difference is that, because movies are so darned expensive to go see, I’m not going to pay to see the crap they make unless its worth it. My girlfriend and I are in grad school right now, and are poor, so perhaps we are outliers, but I would be willing to go to more movies if they cost say: $5-7 instead of $13. Its fun going to the movies, but its also getting really expensive. Though the author mentions this, he doesn’t seem to think that its a greater part of the problem.

    The whole system feels like a boom/bust treadmill. Movies are beginning to cost exponentially more to make, and therefore they cost more to see. Sure, makes sense, but the cost seems to rise a few bucks more every year.

    Sure there is a lot of good stuff out there, but lets see it in the theaters! It would also be great if there was some sort of bracketed cost structure, too. What if movies were shown on a short run/high risk demand driven basis? Rather than showing big blockbusters all the time, fill in the gaps and have some new stuff every week, and just maybe some of these little short runs can gain some momentum.

    AND PIZZA AND BEER! There used to be the Parkside in Oakland, and a couple Mcmenamin’s in Portland that still do this.

    How about an organ grinder, too!

    Seems like it isn’t the supply chain that’s broken so much as the distribution.

  34. You wouldn’t go to Walmart expecting to buy porcelain china dolls or wooden toy soldiers, and you wouldn’t go to a boutique toy shop expecting to buy a Little Tikes Cozy Coupe. They’re different products directed at two completely different markets. Or to use an automotive example, you don’t read about car journalists complaining about a lack of v-12 500hp engines and limited slip differentials in toyota corollas and honda civics.

    Ok sure, it’s a slow news day and movie studio financials are a good way to drive traffic, but it doesn’t mean you need to parrot bad journalism simply for traffic views.

  35. Hollywood is first and foremost an investment industry – a business. Therefore it’s goes without saying that Hollywood films need to appeal to a mass market.

  36. If the Magic 8 Ball movie has a similar theme to the Twilight Zone episode “Nick of Time”, it might be an awesome, awesome movie.

  37. Why don’t they just save $20 million off of a $250 million blockbuster and give the money to 100 talented filmmakers.

    The Man from Earth was shot on that kind of budget – mostly to pay for the (great!) actors, I guess. Sure 90 of them will be crap, but the other 10 are the ones that count.

  38. Thanks! I’ve been wondering about these economics since reading Timothy Wu’s conglomeration-based explanation.

    “How does a film like ‘Transformers’ suit the conglomerate in ways that even a money-making film like ‘Hello, Dolly!’does not?”
    [The Master Switch, 229]

  39. Thank god for Lisa Cholodenko and people like her, making great movies with heart and spirit while telling stories outside the mainstream.

    I just watched The Kids Are All Right and rewatched Laurel Canyon. Nothing blew up. Laurel Canyon had a grand total of about two stunts (based on director commentary). The Kids Are All Right had one guy skateboarding off a roof and breaking his arm. (Hmm .. arm’s race …) Great stories both. It’s not the pixels, it’s the people.

  40. To put things in perspective I like to consider the great films from any recent year, to all the great films made in one year from the “classic” era of Hollywood.

    Certainly not every single year, but if you look at what films came out in any random year between 1931 and 1970 (or whenever), it’s astonishing – there will be classic upon classic (if you’re not that well-versed in classic film it may not seem so impressive).

    Even the 1977 example raised earlier – “Star Wars”, “Annie Hall”, “Close Encounters” and “A Bridge Too Far” – is epic. Those are the well-known ones, and if you look through the academy awards for that year, there isn’t much else that people still remember. But, also in 1977 were “Eraserhead”, “Capricorn One”, “Cross of Iron”, “High Anxiety” (Mel Brooks), “The Hobbit” cartoon, “Jabberwocky” by Terry Gilliam, “Pete’s Dragon”, “Saturday Night Fever”, “Slap Shot”, “The Spy Who Loved Me”, and more. According to Wikipedia, Dan Aykroyd, Billy Crystal, Mel Gibson, Ridley Scott, Meryl Streep, and Sigourney Weaver made their debuts (on film) that year.

    Now, those aren’t all necessarily great films, but most are classics and are still talked about and watched today, and there aren’t as many true stars emerging these days as then (there *are* very good younger actors, don’t get me wrong).

    I think last year was particularly good for a recent year, with several excellent films including The King’s Speech, Inception, The Social Network, Toy Story 3, etc. Those will be classics. A lot of the other great films from last year really won’t be remembered too well… they won’t be thought of as classics. They’ll show up on TV late at night (TCM is almost the only thing I watch on TV…) and you’ll vaguely remember hearing about them, and wonder why they aren’t more well known.

    1. Agreed: in any given year, about 350 movies come out of “Hollywood”.
      Of those, perhaps 7% are worthwhile, iMHO.

      About 25 films a year.

      1 out of 14.

      OTOH, I am aware that the audience includes many many people who are not at all like me – different age, different sex, looking for altogether different, perhaps incommensurable, experiences from their movie watching.

      So that “1 out of 14” ratio for what I consider to be good movies is, to my eyes, a not-too-bad result, all things considered. A good movie every two weeks….

      PS Of those 25 flicks a year, usually in recent years five or so have been documentaries – that particular form of film has really come into its own over the past twenty years, iMHO.

  41. Also: think of the back-log!

    25 flicks per year x 70 years of Hollywood = 1,750 good movies of yore for you kids to choose from!

    You lucky lucky sods, you.

    But that also means that today’s film-makers must thus also compete with not only their contemporaries, but their great predecessors. That has been the case only since 1986 or so, with the wide availability of home video and cable all-movie channels.

    Oh well, when it comes to the movies, times have changed, and we’ve often re-wound the clock…

    …and now – God knows – anything goes!

    1. That’s certainly a good point…although I’d go back further than 1986. By 1985, video stores were taking off like wildfire and VCRs were appearing everywhere….but HBO was already a major force in home video by that point.

      I remember watching a LOT of movies on HBO that were not new then, but had never been watched on TV uncut and uninterrupted. I must have seen “Jesus Christ, Superstar”, “You Only Live Twice” and “Grease” tons of times, just because they played them often enough. I saw a LOT of movies that I wouldn’t have otherwise seen because of HBO (at that time the only cable channel, really).

      There have been a LOT of good movies simply lost to time from lack of exposure or from being much less well-known. I mean, how many people have heard of 1973’s “The Friends of Eddie Coyle”, for example?

      1. “There have been a LOT of good movies simply lost to time from lack of exposure or from being much less well-known. I mean, how many people have heard of 1973’s “The Friends of Eddie Coyle”, for example?”

        Probably everyone on this blog, because it was released by Criterion two years ago. I would be very surprised if you knew about that movie before ’09 either.

        Criterion people are just as annoying as mainstream people. Mainstream people watch the movies advertised at halftime, Criterion people watch the half dozen movies pushed out each month by a little office in new york. Both groups are doing what they’re told.

        How about instead of Eddie Coyle we talk about “Hail the Conquering Hero,” “Bitter Victory,” or “The Emperor Waltz”? All three by well known, accomplished directors, all three essentially lost to the sands of time. Because that’s what happens to movies. They get lost. Even the great ones, like these three.

        Great movies get released all the time. A ton of great, interesting movies were released this year. Did you see “Girlfriend” by Justin Lerner? How about Matthew Lessner’s first feature, “The Woods”? “You Are Here” by Daniel Cockburn? What about “Dirty Girl” by Abe Silvia? These are all great films, all premiered in the last year. If you didn’t see them, it’s your own fault.

        Good movies are out there, waiting. Stop complaining. Get off your butt and find them, or go and make your own.

  42. Hollywood hasn’t given me a boner in 20 years.

    Every time I feel tempted to revisit it, I’m left with nothing but disappointment.

    There are so many painters and musicians who create because they must – not because it will turn a multi-million dollar profit.

    With the ever decreasing cost of computer power & film equipment coupled with the rise social networks, I would hope that try artists of the genre somehow find a way to rise up and create cinematic works of art once again… though I imagine those whose end goal is merely to try and sell it out to Hollywood are probably doomed to produce even more unwatchable poo.

  43. That was an interesting article. I find it strange, though, that the Facebook movie is considered an exception to the dominance of brands.

  44. Eh. Art house movies are mostly boring, mainstream movies are mostly stupid.

    The 70’s were great b/c a cadre of filmmakers mixed pop with personal investment. The Godfather was a pulpy crime saga until FFC grabbed it by the balls and threw his own life into it.

    The division between Exciting Movie and Good Movie is a false one. All the best films mix high and low art – the technique and sensation of high concept hollywood with the sentiment and feeling of low budget art house filmmaking.

    Also, just because I have to say it: listening to non-filmmakers complain about the dearth of good movies is like listening to a fat kid complain there’s no good pie. Go make your own movie if the current field so thoroughly disappoints you. Did you know that making a movie is difficult? It’s like fighting a land war in Asia. It’s basically impossible. But somehow movies get made. If you want so desperately to see “Great, Important, Serious” movies up on the screen again, then have at it kid. Buy a 7D. Find some actors. See what you can do. But if you’re not going to jump into the creative waters and mix it up, keep quiet, and be thankful for what you’re given.

  45. Original thought just doesn’t work as a sustainable business model when you have to sell it to investors.

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