I can't argue with Steven Spielberg. George Lucas on the other hand, maybe (wink, wink).
There is some truth to it. Spielberg sees that these big movies are getting bigger and bigger. The problem that is arising is oversaturation of the market. We are starting to see too many tentpole films. With the success of The Avengers, we're starting to see bigger superhero movies with multiple starring characters. Look at the next X-Men movie coming up. Look at what Warner Brothers is planning with their DC Universe with the advent of Man of Steel and what is to follow (Justice League and crossing worlds of Batman and others).
Then look at the failures of late.
We see John Carter fail. Imagine each studio having such failures in one summer season. Imagine a single studio having multiple failures as such within the span of six months. It WILL alter how studios make movies. But maybe for the better.
Societies NEED to fail. Economies NEED to fail. Sports teams NEED to fail. Without failure, there is no evolution. There is no getting better because we get so comfortable and even worse, complacent. Thus, studios NEED to fail.
It brings balance because studios will then need to alter their spending, their release schedules, etc. They will need to alter their development as well, which means better movies in the long run, if not just more focus on certain ones ... i.e. more calculated risks.
Right now, the studio system is becoming complacent. They are making virtually the same thing over and over. Sequels. Remakes. That's it. We have some gems come up every now and then, but overall, it's a franchise focused industry. This is what Spielberg is likely talking about. We're at that tipping point. Audiences are going to start to grow tired of what we've had the last decade.
Look at the 90s. The spectacles of the 80s, namely the action genre, started to plummet. Arnold, Stallone, and company slowly started to fade away from the box office. It was getting old.
Then came the first X-Men (And before that, to a lesser degree, Blade). Then Spider-Man. The industry learned a little bit after the debacles of Daredevil and the horrible Elektra and Catwoman, and the lackluster Fantastic Four movies. Then came Iron Man. Then Marvel took hold, accompanied by Disney, and developed their Phase I and then Phase II, leading to Captain America, Thor, and then The Avengers. Christopher Nolan had given us Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, which truly changed comic book movies ... made them even more accessible to the real world. Look no further than Man of Steel for how The Dark Knight changed the game.
Now we have more Captain America on the way. We have more Thor. We just had a third Iron Man. Avengers 2 is on the way. WB is shaking up the DC Universe with Man of Steel and eventually Justice League. New Spider-Mans. New X-Men. Guardians of the Galaxy (Which I think will fail).
Do you see where Spielberg is worried here? The scale is about to tip. I can't wait to see all of those movies, but it's getting to that point where the studios are going to need to see some failures. And they have been, starting with John Carter.
So we'll have to pay close attention here. If anything, this discussion can help. Perhaps the powers that be will pay more attention to their development slate and offer some new options or spice things up a bit. Because if studios become overly complacent, things WILL change.
They will consider charging more for big budget event films. I don't think it'll work, but they'll consider it at the very least.
All of that said, let me end on this. This isn't a new discussion. This type of discussion, albeit with perhaps different contexts, happens almost every decade. With new technology and new economies comes new discussions of the film industry.
Nobody knows anything. Not even my man Spielberg. Keep in mind that this was a guy who thought launching Indiana Jones into the air within a fridge via a nuclear blast was going to play well with audiences (again, wink wink).
Nobody will know anything until the shit hits the fan, or it doesn't. But it's well worth the discussion.
Nope, Spielberg is wrong, and the clearest signs of this is right there in his opening premise.
Spielberg says that studios are just investing all their money into big-budget films and not in more middle-range, modestly-budgeted fare, despite the fact the evidence doesn't back up his claim.
Take a close look at the Oscars. Last year, of the 8 Oscar nominees for Best Picture, 6 of them had budgets of about $60 or less. The two largest budgets were $100 million (Django Unchained) and $120 million (Life of Pi). The year before that, of the 9 nominees, 7 had budgets of $50 million or less, one film had a $65 million budget (Spielberg's own War Horse) and another a budget of $150 million (Hugo). The year before that, two films had budgets exceeding $100 million (Inception at $160 million and Toy Story 3 at about $200 million) and the rest were low-budget fare. Etc and etc and etc.
Most every one of these Best Picture nominees was successful at the box office, most of them very successful. Look at how many of them broke $100 million or more at the box office despite their low budgets. It's regularly noted that we're seeing a rise again in indie film-making, and that those indie films often are doing good business. Meanwhile, the ultra-low-budget horror genre has exploded and thrived in the last decade, getting more and more popular.
Hollywood isn't just sticking all of its money into a fewer and fewer films with bigger and bigger budgets, this is just another case of a myth that gets spread and believed simply because so many people spread it and believe it. Some years there are more blockbusters, some years less, and there is a cliched tendency of even otherwise smart industry folks like Spielberg and Lucas to look at what they perceive (rightly or wrongly) to be a trend in the morning and proclaim it as a trend that will last through the next morning and the next, and make large predictions based on it. But it's folly, and by now we all ought to know better.
Likewise, this notion that people are somehow growing less interested in cinema and studios are grappling to keep our attention. Once again this is a tired old myth that rears its head constantly despite the fact it's silly and empty of truth. We need only look at ticket sales and box office year after year, decade after decade, to see the evidence that despite occasional downturns -- often merely perceptions of downturns, caused by some particularly huge blockbuster in a given year that is so off the charts that the next year doesn't quite reach the same heights -- the overall trending is upward.
It seems every year there's some new gloom-and-doom prognosis being bandied about that makes me need to repost this link:
Scroll to the bottom of that chart, and then slowly work your way up and pay attention to the "Change" columns, especially the box office one. Notice how it's almost always in the blue, and that every so often there are a few red years but then it goes right back to blue again? And notice that in the recent red years, the decline is pretty paltry? And notice that despite seesawing up and down every few years, the total number of tickets sold is slowly growing over the years, and is currently just a little bit lower than it was a few years ago but still quite a bit higher than the years before that and the years before that?
This is all just like the myth that there was some "good ol' days" era when movies were all original and unique and full of intellectual drama, without sequels and remakes and adaptations. No such era existed! Every year, every decade, every era of cinema was stuffed full of adaptations and remakes and sequels, or that era's equivalent (like the Marx Bros. films that weren't literally sequels but obviously really were the same thing as sequels). Hollywood made big-budget films and was always chasing the brass ring, so pricey over-budgeted movies existed in pretty much every era you can name. And every era had lots of badly made movies churned out and thrown at audiences, too, schlock and embarrassing trends and whatnot.
Hollywood was never, at any point in its entire history, some golden-streeted think-tank of artistic purists dedicated to enrichment of culture through a focus on only great storytelling achievement. It has been a business since the first day, it's been full of businessmen shaping their choices and films to make profits, and anybody pretending that things were seriously any different in the past than they are today is either misguidedly believing in a false ideal that never existed, or is trying to sell you something.
I've been listening to the claim that TV would sink cinema for my entire life. Or no, VCRs, or wait cable television, or no it's DVDs that do it, well wait no it's the Internet. And on and on it goes. And yet, despite all of this constant added content coming at us 24 hours from all directions has had WHAT impact on theater ticket sales and box office? Take a look again at that linked chart above, if you've forgotten already. We still go the movies, the movies make more money than ever, ticket sales are healthy, and all that despite all this supposed overload of content choice Spielberg talks about.
Cinema remains because cinema isn't any of those other things, and none of those other things are cinema. They might influence one another's content, they might pressure and challenge one another, but what that adds up to is INSPIRATION and more branding and content to adapt and use in all those different mediums. At the end of the day, the net effects have benefited cinema, not threatened it. Spielberg and others don't seem to grasp this simple equation, because they only perceive alternative content outlets and platforms as challengers and competitors, instead of realizing that it's a stew of content from which certain things rise to the top (for whatever reason, be it quality or pure popularity or a combination of both or whatever) and all of this services the bigger and better expectations, so that if a game or online show is popular then everyone starts to talk about WHAT? Making a movie out of it. If they like a movie, they talk about making TV shows, too, but that's part of the trade-off, and always there remains the broad consensus among consumers that when something is big enough and good enough then we start waiting for the movie.
The theater experience is about a special combination of factors that start with the content but are bigger and go to the concept of public events, how we relate to other people and how we like to consume certain types of entertainment. The theater as temple is something I harp on a lot, but the reason I focus so much on it is precisely because of how very true it is. It's a ritual, one of the very few remaining entertainment-related cultural rituals we have, and it is also a special experience for consuming entertainment of this type, and it's a place for dating, it's a night out that is cheaper than most other forms of night-out entertainment. And no matter how great the Internet gets and how good TV shows get or how perfect our Blu-rays get, people want to go out of the house and treat "getting out" as something desirable and special. It, too, is a ritual of our culture, this concept of the night out. And within that ritual is the ritual of experiencing new movies at the temple of entertainment known as the theater.
The change that we've experienced in the last nearly twenty years with regard to the Internet's creation and rise as a dominant part of our culture has been probably the most significant technological and cultural shift in my lifetime. It has taken place right alongside a major change in home entertainment viewing as well, and in that time, attendance at theaters has increased and box office has soared. I have no doubt that bigger changes are on the way for us in home entertainment -- I agree with Lucas that for example we're headed toward Internet and television merging and altering consumption of home entertainment the way iTunes altered record sales. But it's not going to cause some huge collapse of the movie industry, and I'm surprised to see people as involved and informed as Spielberg and Lucas would buy into such a notion.
Now, all of that said, is it true that some studios are sometimes pushing budgets to levels that are getting dangerous at times and hard for them to endure a flop. And it's also true that studios have been shamefully, notoriously slow to embrace new technology and remain distrustful of other mediums and platforms in the home market and portable electronics. But that's par for the course in Hollywood, they've always been slow to adapt to these things, and then they are dragged kicking and screaming into it and figure out how to make a buck off it and suddenly the chaos and uncertainty gets settled. When Spielberg talks about panic in the industry over declining DVD sales etc, he's just echoing a regular reaction in Hollywood whenever things change slightly or dip downward -- everyone panics and rushes around and treats momentary events like a world-changing affair, just as everyone sees a momentary dip in 3D attendance and rushes off to proclaim the death of 3D or sees a tiny dip in box office amid decades of increases and starts screaming that box office is in a death-spiral.
There's no point to turning every moment of uncertainty or dip into claims that the industry is doomed. The fact that things are different and changing is just a sign of some slight adjustments and some evolution in how to approach the business of storytelling, and Hollywood will keep on keeping on.
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