THE BLOG
03/31/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Word To Hollywood: In Recessionary Times, Smaller, Better Films, Please -- And More Of Them!

Speculation abounds as to how various industries will weather and adapt to this deepening recession. The financial industry remains under a magnifying glass, as the word "bonus" gets swiftly erased from our collective lexicon. In the manufacturing realm, pundits speculate on how soon the big three auto manufacturers may dwindle down to two.

In the media arena, print seems to be going the way of the dodo. As to television, the New York Times wonders whether network television is becoming irrelevant as tough economic times increasingly force them to offer little more than news, award shows, and reality-based dreck. That nimble upstart known as cable television now represents the pre-eminent source for original programming. Bill Paley must be spinning.

But what about the movie business? Given the old studio bosses' success in adapting to the Great Depression, and the integral role movies played in the lives of struggling Americans desperate for escape, one would now expect more scrutiny on this industry that has contentedly wallowed in its own excesses for so long.

I'm happy to lead off. Very often bad times offer silver linings, forcing both individuals and businesses to re-assess their strategies in light of new conditions, and in effect, reinvent themselves. Hollywood should seize this opportunity, and fast.

My first piece of free advice: make smaller, better films, and more of them. Easier said than done, I know, but why not try? Why is bigger so often thought to be better?

Ever since the soggy "Waterworld" (1995) busted through the 200 million dollar budget mark, nine figure productions no longer raise many eyebrows. "Titanic" was close to $250 million, and the "Spiderman" franchises, along with the disastrous "Terminator 3" (2003), "King Kong" (2005), and "Superman Returns" (2006) have all approached the same astronomical figure.

Adjusting for inflation, the only films in movie history that have exceeded these absurd numbers are: first, the bloated "Cleopatra"(1963), undoubtedly the most cursed production in history, whose succession of well-documented mishaps ballooned its budget to over $40 million over a three year period (by comparison, "Lawrence of Arabia", just as epic and filmed at roughly the same time, cost $15 million); and second, the leviathan Russian production of "War and Peace" (1967), which took over seven years to shoot and in its final form runs the length of four movies.

While the aforementioned comic-book entries have been particularly pricey, let's not forget those other two fantasy franchises: the price tags for each of the "Harry Potter" and "Lord Of The Rings" installments have topped $100 million.

As these titles suggest, more and more the movie business has focused on drawing the critical 12-24 year old demographic into theatres. These younger consumers tend not to read reviews, yet are marketing-sensitive. And of course they need a place to go on Friday and Saturday nights. Bingo!

Of course, adults like movies too, but they may ask a little more from what's up on the screen than explosions and special-effects. Back in Hollywood's Golden Age, the industry made literate films for grown-ups because they wanted to build the prestige of the medium with high-quality, thought-provoking entertainment. The focus was as much on content as style. Wouldn't Hollywood benefit from adopting this approach again?

It could certainly help broaden and expand their production slate. While this year's gimmicky "Benjamin Button" cost $150 million, the superlative "Milk" cost just $15 million. Why not fund ten more "Milk" type films and forego one "Button"? You'd employ more people (good for the economy), get more people in theatres (good for the bottom-line), and win critical raves (good for morale).

Several of my favorite films over the past two decades were modestly budgeted vehicles: "American Beauty" cost $15 million, while "Pulp Fiction" and "Little Miss Sunshine" each came in at $8 million. (My favorite foreign film, "The Lives Of Others" from 2006, cost just $2 million- what does that tell you?).

Finally, the thorny issue of star compensation arises. The idea that top names can command $20 million dollars a picture, plus a percentage of the upside, and then complain about the paparazzi, is beyond infuriating. In the thirties and forties, stars made an extremely good living- no doubt- but the highest annual salaries, adjusted for inflation, would have approached roughly $4-5 million in today's dollars. And as public figures, these people had to earn that money on and off the set: when a photographer approached, they were expected to smile.

Does Tom Hanks or Jim Carrey really need another $20+ million plus expenses for six months on location? Shouldn't some of that money go to fund more productions so that some of their under-utilized colleagues can get work more often?

The standard excuse is that Hollywood is purely a business; any cultural impact, positive or negative, is purely incidental to the single-minded goal of making money. Particularly in these times, this seems like an irresponsible and arrogant attitude for an industry that can skirt quality for one reason only: they only need to make you buy their product once.

True, in most other civilized countries, you'll find greater government support for the arts, which tends to reinforce the idea that film has a dual role to play: to earn money for its makers, but also to reward, entertain, and quite often, enlighten its customers. These two goals need not be mutually exclusive, but Hollywood's prevailing attitude makes it seem that way.

To be sure, it is exceedingly hard to make great films, and just a change in attitude won't guarantee they get made. But as in the early thirties, Hollywood now has a compelling reason to re-think how they operate, and rise to a higher standard, working to provide more varied, intelligent entertainment for viewers who are, once again, in urgent need of diversion.

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