Hollywood movies are terrible right now, so terrible that many of the biggest names in the biz are speaking out about it. The epidemic of introspection began in April at the San Francisco International Film Festival, where Steven Soderbergh delivered his now-infamous fare-thee-well to Hollywood and to moviemaking. The speech was long—too long to encapsulate here—but the sad gist was this: Soderbergh can’t get financing anymore, and neither can anyone else who wants to make original movies for adults. His last film, the Liberace biopic Behind The Candelabra, was turned down by every major studio, even though it featured Oscar-bait roles for Michael Douglas and Matt Damon and would’ve cost a relatively modest $25 million. The reason: not franchise-able, not merchandise-able. In the end, Soderbergh took it to HBO, where it became the cable channel’s highest-rated movie in almost a decade.
Not long after Soderbergh spoke out, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas—two of the most bankable men in American movies today—went public with their own difficulties getting financing. According to Spielberg, his massive critical and financial hit Lincoln came “this close” to being an HBO production itself. “You’re at the point now where a studio would rather invest $250 million in one film for a real shot at the brass ring than make a whole bunch of really interesting, deeply personal—and maybe even historical—projects,” said Spielberg. He and Lucas went on to warn of a coming industry “implosion”—a cataclysm triggered by a succession of unexpected, massively expensive flops.
The latest Cassandra is veteran über-producer Lynda Obst (Sleepless In Seattle, Contact), who has published a highly valuable (if somewhat shoddily written) insider’s take on the crisis, Sleepless In Hollywood: Tales From The New Abnormal In The Movie Business. The book helps to clarify why Hollywood films have become so humongous and so homogenous over the past few years. The shift started, Obst explains, when the bottom fell out of the massively lucrative DVD market less than a decade ago. In order to make up for all that lost revenue, the industry turned to booming foreign audiences—particularly those in China and Russia, where screens have proliferated and restrictions on Hollywood imports have greatly eased. Not long ago, foreign box office accounted for about 20 percent of a film’s gross; now it accounts for about 80 percent. (According to Obst, China will surpass America as Hollywood’s No. 1 market by 2020.) It hardly needs be said that movies with cultural specificity don’t translate well to non-English speakers. Accordingly, it’s now all spectacle, all the time.
So yes, the situation is bad, but is it really so dire? Obst, Spielberg, and other Hollywood insiders may think so, but that’s because they’re used to things being a certain way. If the question is reframed from the perspective of audiences, there’s good reason to think things will get better, not worse: The more Hollywood neglects domestic audiences, the better, because unless you’ve been held hostage in a dungeon for the past three decades, you’ve probably noticed Hollywood has been making lousy movies for a very long time now. Sure, a smattering of Hollywood films turn out well each year, but those are the exceptions, not the norm. Things have pretty much sucked since the big conglomerates bought up the studios in the late ’70s, ushering in the era of meddlesome marketing departments, test screenings, product placement, box-office tracking—all things that’ve been draining the vitality and humanity from movies. For too long now, working within the system has been a loser’s game, and it’s high time cinema’s biggest talents stopped playing it.
Fortunately, we don’t have to wait for those talents to decide to stop playing, because they’ve already been kicked from the field. And now, after wandering the desert for a bit, many of them are dusting themselves off and finding other ways of getting work financed, ways less subject to compromise. For example, Richard Linklater, lost in the wilds of Hollywood for a time, made a comeback with the excellent, independently financed Bernie and Before Midnight; Kathryn Bigelow, who’d been making run-of-the-mill Hollywood action crap, finally came into her own with the independently financed The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty; even old duffer William Friedkin went indie and came up with Killer Joe—the best thing he’s done in decades. Granted, we’re a long way off from a new golden age, but every director that’s forced to go indie is a director better off than he or she was before.
Just take a look at last year’s theatrical slate: Almost all of the most interesting American pictures were from directors who emancipated themselves from Hollywood, either by choice or out of necessity: Paul Thomas Anderson enjoyed full creative independence on The Master by working with Megan Ellison’s Annapurna Pictures, as did Andrew Dominik on Killing Them Softly and Bigelow on ZDT. Joe Carnahan’s The Grey—a B-movie that took risks and stuck to its guns right to the end—was financed by Open Road, a new consortium of theatrical exhibitors (AMC and Regal) eager to see more medium-budget movies in the marketplace. Whatever your opinion of those pictures, none of them would’ve been made under the aegis of a studio or even one of the so-called mini-majors.
Meanwhile, other, more industry-beholden directors are figuring out they can work with the studios by working around them. Robert Zemeckis got Paramount to finance Flight—not necessarily a great picture, but easily his most compelling, human-scaled work in years—by agreeing to the relatively modest budget of $31 million and by deferring his own fee. (Essentially, he bankrolled the picture himself.) Soderbergh did the same with his hit Magic Mike, which he delivered to Warner Bros. for the ridiculously low cost of $7 million. (His actors took deferred fees, too.) Both of those films, incidentally, made more than $100 million at the box office.
In fact, almost all of these movies have been either sizable hits or solid recoupers (save for The Master, a money-loser), which goes to show there’s still very much an audience for original, non-blockbuster fare. The question is: Can those films continue to compete when the likes of Man Of Steel and Despicable Me 2 are clogging up 4,000+ theater screens apiece each week? If this summer’s box-office receipts are anything to go by, they can. The signs of blockbuster fatigue are everywhere: Despicable Me 2 may be doing boffo biz, but Man Of Steel hasn’t made as much as predicted, nor has Star Trek Into Darkness or The Hangover Part III. Meanwhile, other wannabe blockbusters have sunk like stones (After Earth, White House Down, The Lone Ranger). Most of these pictures will still make money via foreign territories, which means the studios don’t need to be particularly worried. The North American exhibitors, however, are very worried. They need bums in seats, and they’re not getting enough of them. The mere existence of the aforementioned Open Road shows that exhibitors want a wider variety of product than Hollywood is giving them, so much so that they’ve begun bankrolling pictures themselves. (Open Road has gone on to finance David Ayer’s nervy and profitable End Of Watch and Soderbergh’s pharmaceutical thriller, Side Effects.)
Actors want more than Hollywood is giving them, too, and an increasing number of big names are throwing their weight behind indie movies—movies that ask them to do more than save the world from annihilation and don’t require them to perform in front of green screens. Take Matthew McConaughey, who’s been on quite a roll lately rediscovering the joys of actual acting. His most recent film, Jeff Nichols’ lovely indie Mud, went up against the biggest movies of the summer and quietly grossed a spectacular $20 million with almost no promotion. Similarly, Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper achieved the same feat with Derek Cianfrance’s ambitious The Place Beyond The Pines, which grossed $21 million domestically.
In short, what we’re witnessing right now isn’t the end of original, adult movies; it’s the end of Hollywood’s corrupting influence on original, adult movies. We should rejoice that studios are removing themselves from “quality” filmmaking: Maybe it’ll mean less crap like Les Misérables or The Help or Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close. (I don’t mean to suggest indie pictures are inherently superior—I was no fan of The Place Beyond The Pines, for instance—just that they are more creator-controlled and thus more worthy of emulation.) Ultimately, what Obst and Lucas et al. are bemoaning is the loss of the old ways of doing things. It’s understandable, coming from them—they may be too set in their ways to change. But since the old ways kind of sucked, maybe the rest of us should welcome this new paradigm shift.