Inner Dialogue: The State of the Studios

A while back I promised that I would be trying some different things this year at The Best Films of Our Lives. This is the first such feature, an attempt to resurrect the feel of my old Gates and Putin at the Movies blog. Inner Dialogue will try to address some of the bigger news stories and trends of the film world – with commentary both critical and tongue-in-cheek. Your hosts are Lefty and Righty: symbolic stand-ins for the increasingly schizophrenic mind of a young film critic. Please enjoy, and join the debate in the comments if you wish.

Lefty: Welcome! Welcome, dear readers, to the first installment of Inner Dialogue. We are Lefty and Righty, abstractions invented by the author to address the most pressing issues facing the cinematic world today. The logic behind us being here is simple – informed, intelligent debate is often at the heart of great criticism. Siskel and Ebert, Kael and Sarris, Godard and Truffaut: discussion and disagreement can produce some of our most provocative thoughts.

Righty: And if you can’t actually find anyone who wants to talk to you about these things, might as well just make it up.

Lefty: Today’s topic is a big one, that’s been on the minds of a lot of bloggers and film industry insiders this summer: whether or not the current state of the Hollywood studio system is sustainable. Steven Soderbergh essentially sparked this debate with his keynote speech at the San Francisco International Film Festival in April; soon after heavyweights Steven Spielberg and George Lucas chimed in, predicting the complete implosion of the modern studio model. There’s all kinds of perspectives to consider on this issue, and Soderbergh in particular does a good job of breaking down the challenges a filmmaker faces in making a movie today; but we are not directors, so I think it would be better for us to address this issue as regular film-goers. So let’s just start right off with the big question, Righty: as a customer, are you satisfied with Hollywood’s product these days?

Righty: Absolutely not. I mean, did you SEE “Man of Steel?” Superman practically destroyed half the world and we’re supposed to just say thanks? WTF?

Lefty: Well, you know, I actually didn’t see “Man of Steel,” but I’d like to avoid talking so much about the problems of specific films and focus on –

Righty: Or “White House Down!” How do you mess up a movie with Jamie Foxx as an ass-kicking Obama stand-in? Harrison Ford is rolling in his grave.

Lefty: Um, Harrison Ford isn’t dead, in fact he just starred in that “Paranoia” thing opening this weeken-

Righty: “Pacific Rim!” Simplest high-concept pitch of all time: giant robots punch giant monsters. MICHAEL BAY can handle this, but Guillermo del Toro can’t?

Lefty: Wait, did YOU actually see any of these movies?

Righty: No, but you know. Internet.

Lefty: Ah ha, now let’s talk some more about that, because I think the Internet has been both a blessing and a curse for the studios. On the one hand, it’s given them a mass marketing tool unlike any they’ve ever had before – they can almost literally pummel the public with advertising online, and a million fanboys just waiting to give them free publicity by endlessly discussing the tiniest details of trailers. Properly done, they can turn anything into the next must-see event film. On the other hand, that kind of intense scrutiny and exposure is, I think, a major factor in the blockbuster fatigue that we’re seeing at the box office. We feel like we’ve already seen these big tentpole projects before they’ve even come out, because they’ve already been endlessly dissected.

Righty: You say that, but “Man of Steel” still made over $289 million. That’s almost $1 for every person in America. I basically paid a dollar to see that film and I didn’t even actually see it.

Lefty: But what choice did we have? Those kinds of super-sized films are the only things at the multiplex these days. There are already 19 films this year alone that grossed over $100 million at the box office, with another five or six hovering just under (boxofficemojo). “The Lone Ranger” made $87 million and was considered a HUGE FLOP. Studios are betting everything they have on these blockbuster films, throwing millions and millions of dollars not only at the production budget but the marketing. If they continue like this, you have to figure that Lucas and Spielberg are right: all you need is a couple of mega-movies in a row to underperform, and the studios won’t be able to take the loss.

Righty: Tell that to the Chinese.

Lefty: …the what?

Righty: The Chinese!

Lefty: …are we doing the racist Colin Farrell bit from “In Bruges?”

Right: The Chinese box office, doofus. And the Russians, for that matter. We talk about these films like “Pacific Rim,” “The Lone Ranger,” “After Earth,” “White House Down,” etc. etc. being flops, but most of those actually still managed to make back their budget or even turn a profit thanks to the overseas market. America isn’t even deciding the fate of American movies anymore, Lefty! IT’S UNAMURICAN.

Lefty: Oh. Well that’s actually a reasonable point…sort of. With the overseas markets acting as a safety net, that studio implosion seems far less likely. So is that really a bad thing for the state of cinema?

Righty: It’s a great thing for the state of HBO’s bank account.

Lefty: Explain yourself.

Righty: If I just want to watch Clive Owen doing an Ernest Hemingway impression or Jon Hamm hamming it up or Steve Buscemi do anything, I don’t go to the movies anymore – I illegally stream HBO and AMC.

Lefty: That kind of contradicts your last point.

Righty: Still.

Lefty: No, you’re right – the overhead, and the risk, is so much lower and more manageable on TV networks these days that they’re willing to gamble on more adventurous, character-driven pieces. And it’s not always successful – the reviews for AMC’s “Low Sun Rising” aren’t that great, for instance, and it’s almost certainly not going to be the new “Breaking Bad” that network was hoping for – but who in Hollywood would’ve been willing to give a great character actor like Mark Strong a shot in a lead role? No one. And Christopher Guest hasn’t made a film in years now, but I bet it took all of about ten minutes to greenlight “Family Tree” – why not give an eight-episode trial run to an established, respected director who can work on a tiny budget?

Righty: Because half of the series is about a ventriloquist and her monkey puppet?

Lefty: Well…yes, perhaps it wasn’t an automatic slam dunk. But let’s not get too far into TV here.

Righty: Why not?

Lefty: Because this is a movie blog?

Righty: OK, but TV is made of “movies.” Moving images. For years we’ve been acting like TV is the underachieving little brother of film, but suddenly it’s wound up with better results in the same basic criteria. It’s like the Manning brothers. One still has all the prestige and reputation, even though the other is actually delivering more consistently. Film executives whine about TV and VOD and streaming and how it’s killing their business, but we can see from the millions and billions of dollars in total box office gross for the year that they’re still making money hand over fist. They’re really just whining that someone else is making BETTER movies than them, and getting it to the people more easily. *Waaaaah waaaaah* go and cry about it.

Lefty: Better by what metric, though? As you say, the studios are still dominating in terms of income. And while the critical reception for a lot of these summer blockbusters has been lackluster, there’s still been plenty to talk about on the indie scene. And even a few films, like “World War Z” and “The Conjuring,” for instance, got quite good reviews. No matter what anyone says, film is not dying as an art – this is essentially a debate about the KIND of movies that get made in the mainstream, not even necessarily talking about their quality.

Righty: I don’t care about it.

Lefty: …well, if you’re not interested in it, why are we-

Righty: No, I mean that’s my point. I don’t care as much about film. We don’t care as much about film as we used to. If I go to work, my co-workers are just as if not more likely to talk to me about the new “Breaking Bad” episode than they are about “Elysium.” We have all these “must-see” movies, but at the same time no one really gets that worked up about them. They’re not water-cooler material. Ask me about the new “Fast and Furious” sequel and I’ll maybe say, “yeah, Vin Diesel is cool.” End of discussion. Ask me about the new “Game of Thrones?” You’re getting a ten-minute screed about why Daenerys Targaryen is frakking awesome, and another half hour of speculation about the next episode.

Lefty: So the real problem here isn’t even necessarily financial – by betting big on all these blockbusters that are essentially the same, Hollywood is losing its cultural cache.

Righty: Whatever floats your boat, Lefty. Is Hollywood going to “implode?” No. We’re too used to going out to the movies. We’re just going to go see whatever comes out – I think all the money we threw at “Alice in Wonderland” and “Oz the Great and Powerful” shows that.

Lefty: So then what happens? In your scenario, I see Hollywood as just becoming more specialized – a niche market not in terms of audience appeal, but material created. Bollywood makes musicals; the American indie scene makes quirky coming-of-age dramadies; Hollywood makes large, explosion-laden action films.

Righty: LET ME GET THAT BOOM BOOM BOOM

Lefty: I think five-year-old pop music references are a sign that we should end this conversation. Thanks for joining us today on Inner Dialogue – if you’ve got anything to say about the current state of Hollywood and the blockbuster system, let us know in the comments!

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