Why American movies won’t die

Here is a well-linked to article about how American movies are dying in terms of quality.   Ross Douthat comments.  Most of the arguments are correct, namely that too many big budget movies require a “tent pole” in terms of a connection to a comic book, a famous book (Harry Potter), a TV show, and so on.  But the article is still too pessimistic.  Here are three reasons why movie quality should survive, albeit with some cyclical fluctuations:

1. The more centrist and mainstream the big budget movies get, the more opportunities are created in the niches.

2. Due mainly to digital editing, the costs of movie production and editing are falling.  That favors innovation.  Marketing costs are rising, due to an increasing scarcity of attention, and that favors blockbusters  Still, this latter factor has self-correcting elements, as mentioned above, and many forms of marketing (e.g., the internet) are cheaper than buying network TV ads.  The cost story is complicated, but it should not over the longer run penalize quality.

3. The U.S. population is aging and this will push movies away from some of their more juvenile shortcomings.

Comments

An example of this thesis born out is Keven Smith, self-promoting his new movie, "Red State", by touring with it. He appeared in Boston and NYC last week, and will finish up in California at the end of the month, screening the film in a theater, and then answering audience questions afterward.

But cinemas are full of chavs stuffing their faces, nattering and shouting into their mobile phones. The adverts are designed to damage hearing and promote epileptic seizures. The content is designed for an infantilised population. I last went to the cinema in 2006: can anyone tell me whether it's improved since then?

Just look at those never dying soap operas like The young and the restless, guiding light and so on most of them with over 12.000 (twelve thousand) episodes. They really are never going to die because people need mediocre TV :) it's part of their life.

My blog on epilare.

"3. The U.S. population is aging and this will push movies away from some of their more juvenile shortcomings."

I don't get this point. Won't the new generation replace the current juvenile shortcomings with their own brand juvenile shortcomings?

Bill James had a great series of blurbs in his Historical Baseball Abstract called "Old Ballplayers Never Die," which basically documented that, as long as there have been baseball, there have oldtimers who thought the current generation was only in it for the money, didn't have the same passion:

It makes me weep to think of the men of the old days who played the game and the boys of today. It's positively a shame, and they are getting big money for it, too.

-Bill Joyce in 1916

I'm pretty convinced that this same half-blind nostalgia shows up everywhere, and that the linked article is just another example of silly pining for the Good Ol' Days. The 1970s seem like a glorious time for movies because we it was long ago and we forget all the utter crap that came out, we only remember the great ones.

Tyler's first point is extremely valid, but it seems like the opportunities presented aren't being used. I get the appeal of trying to go for a huge success, but why not also try for smaller successes as well? Is it that hard to find good ideas from unknowns? Sure, the marketing is difficult, if not so much in expense but in the scarce attention of the consumer, but why not use relatively cheap ways to build buzz? There are only so many previews that can go before a movie, and if nobody sees your movie, nobody will see the preview. But everyone has Internet access. I could see a situation where a studio decides to focus on nobodies, insist on strict cost controls as movies are made, and then releases a few minutes of the movie in order to build buzz. If it's anything interesting, it could easily spread through sites like Twitter and then through the mainstream media. How expensive is it to promote things through Twitter?

To elaborate a bit: the 60s and 70s, while giving us The Godfather, Taxi Driver, etc., also gave us plenty of branded, mindless, endlessly sequel'd movies: The Dirty Harry series started in 1971, the James Bond series (based on a book! The horror!) started in 1964. The 1970s also had their own mostly forgotten fads, notably the disaster film. And the don't forget the comic-book movie Superman came out in 1978, before that Batman (based on a TV show! Oh noes! Which was itself based on a comic book! Oh double-noes!) came out in 1966.

The list is endless. Forty years from now we'll only remember Inception, we won't remember or care that Spiderman 8, Shrek 4, Ironman 3 came out the same year.

I go to the movies during the day -- it is like having a private screening: invariably there are very few other people around, and certainly there are no chavs, cretins, or creeps. Mind you, I see decent films and not Eddie Murphy "comedies" or Vin Diesel / Jason Stratham crap "action" films. I find that there are enough decent films made every year, perhaps a dozen, perhaps two. Yeah, I still enjoy the movie theatre experience.

Maybe the movies are too politically correct and anti-middle class to be worth anything.

One other consideration working against quality in movies may be that screenwriters now can write long-form television that is recognized within the field of literary production as just as high quality as anything done for films. Writers interested in prestige rewards now may opt to write the next Sopranos or The Wire or Breaking Bad rather than Reservoir Dogs or The Usual Suspects. The same is true for actors and actresses, who now move more frequently between media (including theatre).

I'd add globalization, piracy, and merchandising as reasons here.

1) The appeal of deep quality dramas is as limited as it has always been, but the appeal of comic book movies/dumb comedies has grown. Largely low-educated audiences in developing countries like the latter better than the former. Not to mention that the latter don't usually require as much fluency in English- it's all explosions and men getting hit in the crotch.

2) My brother was baffled by the fact that my parents actually PAID to rent (ironically) Inception. Piracy is more of a problem for dramas than action movies because even some pirates will pay to see the movie in a theater with the appropriate special effects. I'm not sure if this explains the "decline" of movies up to this point, but going forward studios won't make good movies if they don't expect to profit from them. So there should at least be fewer good movies.

3) You can merchandise a superhero movie much more easily than a drama.

"Largely low-educated audiences in developing countries like the latter better than the former. Not to mention that the latter don’t usually require as much fluency in English- it’s all explosions and men getting hit in the crotch."

English?

Aren't you aware that most audiences watch dubbed versions of Hollywood films? The widespread use of dubbing is a more plausible way of how globalization could be partially to blame for a decline in quality. The actor's delivery is completely lost in translation. The text and aspects of the plot are modified. Sometimes they go so far as to completely change the genre of the film from drama to comedy or vice versa.

There's scarcely an original thought in Hollywood.

Most Hollywood films are:

- Remakes of classic American films

- Remakes of foreign films

- Sequels or prequels

- Screenplays adapted from successful books

And they usually do a poor job at all four of them.

The last of these is probably the one I'm least bothered by, but it is still remarkable that contemporary Hollywood writers can seldom come up with an original script. Add that to the list of things screwed up by labor unions!

http://www.lofficier.com/wgaarticle.htm

I can't believe Hollywood is doing a remake of the Stieg Larsson films. What's wrong with the originals? When was the last time film distributors just tried to circulate the foreign film?

Why did Nicholas Cage think he could improve Bangkok Dangerous? The American version LOST money.

Richard Gere RUINED "Shall We Dance," regardless of how profitable it was. And to rub salt into the wound, they're doing a remake of American Gigolo!

The most original films are the ones that are animated.

12 Angry Men was good in both versions. Ladykillers was a big improvement over the awful original. There are other remakes which were improvements, but they're the exception and also examples of Hollywood laziness and risk aversion.

"Due mainly to digital editing, the costs of movie production and editing are falling." - I think this is wrong. Going from a state where Moviola or an Avid system was the only game in town to one where anyone can have Final Cut on their Mac for less than a thousand dollars was a big deal, but editing is a tiny component of the cost of even a small indie film. Even if there was some kind of free open source Final Cut knockoff the gain would be pretty small.

On the other hand, there are some really nice digital cameras that you can get in the low 5 figure range, and thats made a big difference. You can also paint out misbehaving extras and other stuff that gets into frame instead of reshooting. Still I think at the end of the day things like paying actors and crew, and having nice production design are a much larger expense than any of the gains you can get with better or cheaper digital technology.

I wish you would comment on the government ban of the Hollywood Stock Exchange. If the exchange existed we may have seen better quality pictures simply because investors could have diversified their bets into riskier movies. Instead, we get the increasingly risk averse studios calling all the shots,which happened to lobby against the Hollywood Stock Exchange. THOSE EVIL FUCKS! Why am i the only one typing in all caps on this issue?

Dirk,

Because it's movies.

That was a truly bad story because it utterly ignores the possibility of reducing costs. Tyler mentioned in his post that digital editing is cheaper, and there's actually way more potential for savings in digital cameras. A Red Epic costs less to buy than a Panavision film camera costs to rent for 12 weeks. Plus, digital shots need way less supplemental light than film. If you've ever watched a movie filmed, you'll know that the lighting accounts for much of the cost. They need several tractor-trailers to haul it all on location and several hours to change the lighting between two shots -- thereby limiting the number of scenes you can shoot in a day to about two.

The writer didn't even inquire about the need to spend $40 million on its hero film, The Social Network. I enjoyed that film, but there's absolutely no way it should have cost more than $5 million to make. No stars. No FX. A handful of locations. It was nearly a play. If movies like that are to cost $40 million, the people responsible for their dearth are not the studio executives but the producers and directors who cannot create and work within normal budgets. The entire series of Mad Men, to date, has cost less than $40 million.

The bottleneck is direction. In one scenario these cost reductions clear the bottleneck by opening opportunities to quality new directors. In another scenario, the system does a good job of percolating quality directors (Chris Nolan rose from Memento pretty quickly to being given carte blanche, but he had to do a unique movie like Memento before moving away from movies like Memento to take advantage of greater resources) and the new opportunities will just increase the noise.

"Dirk,

Because it’s movies."

Andrew,

Don't ever say you care more about movies than I do.

To give an idea of how cheap modern electronics CAN make movies, District 9, was an innovative, creative, AND special-effects heavy movie. Yet it only cost $30M to make.

It just has to be done by a director who HAS a cost constraint, and who's working outside of Hollywood. (It may have had Peter Jackson's backing and financing, but it was clearly a South African movie.), and it had to aggressively embrace technology where appropriate (eg, it was filmed entirely on digital cameras) and other techniques (Hollywood would have built a slum. District 9 just filmed in one).

Hollywood is just about the last industry in America where management hasn't succeeded in crushing skilled blue collar labor. As you might have noticed watching the technical awards at the Oscars, movies in LA employ a whole bunch of middle-aged white guys who make huge hourly wages, but are extremely good at their jobs.

Thank goodness for the Weinstein Company.

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