Thursday, January 6, 2011

Hollywood Stumbles. . . Actually, No

Hollywood profits were down slightly this year and ticket sales were off by a whopping 6%. Suddenly, a great many articles are being written announcing Hollywood's demise: they don’t know how to make good films, they have alienated their audiences, 3D has turned out to be a bust, and the sky is falling. The truth, however, is rather different. Indeed, no matter how much I wish their business model would fail so they would need to change the way they do business, the truth is that everything is fine for them.

Let’s start with my grievances. For those of you who've been reading my discussions of films, you will know that I think Hollywood has entered a dead period, where they are making nothing but poor, throw-away, formulaic junk. Indeed, if you compare the extraordinary number of top films that came out of the 1990s against the total lack of good films in this past decade, it’s obvious that something’s gone wrong:

Some of the Best of the 1990s. . . The "Best" I Could Find in the 2000s. . .
The MatrixLord of the Rings
Men In BlackThe Dark Knight
The Sixth SensePirates of the Caribbean
Jurassic ParkUp
Independence DayHarry Potter
The Lion King
Pulp Fiction
L.A. Confidential
Terminator 2
Saving Private Ryan
True Lies
Basic Instinct
Schinder's List
The Usual Suspects
Toy Story

But Hollywood isn’t about art, no matter what they say, it’s about profit. And when you look at profit, you quickly understand why they don’t care about my complaints.

Last year ticket sales fell 6%. And in the past decade, ticket sales fell six out of ten years, which compares poorly to the 1990s when sales rose six out of ten years or the 1980s when sales rose seven out of ten years. And when you compare the number of tickets sold during the decade with the population of America during that decade you find a drop in the number of tickets sold per person from the 1990s to the 2000s. In the 1990s, there were on average 5.2 tickets sold per person per year. In the 2000s, this number fell to 5.1 per year. So the studios must be freaking out right?

Actually no. When you look at the 1980s, you find that the number of tickets sold was only 4.9 per person per year. Thus, while the 2000s saw a loss of 0.1 tickets per person per year compared to the 1990s, it was still 0.2 tickets per person higher than in the 1980s. In other words, the studios sell more tickets per person today than they did 20 years ago. That’s hardly a reason to panic.

And don’t forget, this is despite the massive explosion of alternatives -- cable television, the internet, video games, video on demand, home theaters, etc. These same changes are killing network television and the old media, but Hollywood hasn't missed a step.

Moreover, despite somewhat falling tickets sales, profits are soaring. In 2010 and 2009, the studios made more than $10.5 and $10.6 billion in ticket sales. By comparison, the best year in the 1990s was only $7.5 billion, and the early 1990s saw sales below $4.9 billion. So in 20 years, the studio has more than doubled its income, and it’s on a nearly straight-line curve. That’s not an unhealthy business model.

If there is a problem, it’s the increasing costs the studios are facing, with the average cost of movies going up from $11.3 million per film in 1980 to $26.8 million in 1990 to $54.8 million in 2000. That poses a problem because that appears to mean that costs are doubling every decade, whereas profits are only doubling every two decades. But the answer to increasing costs is to cut those costs, not to hope for better sales. Consequently, Hollywood has begun shipping its productions overseas to low-cost places like India and non-union locations.

What all of this means is that the studios have no reason whatsoever to change what they are doing. Despite dramatic increases in ticket prices and all of the complaints we can level against the industry, people continue to buy tickets at about the same rate they’ve bought them for the last 30 years and dollar-value sales continue to double every decade. If there is a problem, it’s on the cost end, not the sales end, and that is not going to get them to worry more about story. Thus, no matter how much we may wish that Hollywood would listen to our complaints, they have no economic reason to listen or to change anything they do. Ug.


ScottDS said...

I'm sure you could find a few more movies from the 2000s. Gladiator? Black Hawk Down? The Incredibles? There Will Be Blood? Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind? Master and Commander? Hell, I'd even add Shrek.

As for me, I only saw three films in the theater in 2010. Why? Because I'm not going to spend 10 bucks on a whim when I can wait a short three months and Netflix the Blu-Ray to watch on my nice 32" flat-screen HDTV.

I completely agree that costs are out of control and it's safe to say that the era of the $20 million payday is dead and buried. Hell, even small romantic comedies cost $100 million to make and market!

Hollywood will change when the next generation of filmmakers tries to change it, just like Spielberg and Lucas and the gang did 40 years ago. I am, of course, oversimplifying this. And my original thesis from BH stands: support the good movies otherwise the crap will rise to the top. :-) Many are hoping the success of Inception will spawn a series of intelligent, well-made summer movies (I doubt it).

CrispyRice said...

The only thing that shocked me lately (when I went to my annual outing to a real movie theater over the holidays) was that people were willing spending nearly $20 per ticket to see something in 3D IMAX. Seriously?

Call me cheap, but Hollywood can keep their movies at those prices. I'll wait for Netflix. :)

CrispyRice said...

Oh, and I agree with Scott - Hollywood will change once you get a lot of the older "deadwood" out of there. There seem to me to be (not just in Hollywood, but in many places) people who did something decades ago and are now resting on their laurels. But they're in power and nothing is going to change 'til they leave.

It's like the politicians who have been in the Senate for 65 years and refuse to retire.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Other than Gladiator (which was on the border), I'm not sure any of the rest you mention have the legs of any of the 1990s films I've listed do. Also, I only picked a handful of 1990s films, there were dozens more -- so the list is actually much more lopsided than it appears.

In terms of you not seeing films, the statistics apparently don't bear that out as the number of tickets sold has only fallen slightly over the last decade.

In terms of the next generation of directors changing Hollywood, I think you're being overly-optimistic. You are looking at the old business model where the director mattered. I would suggest that the new model that is coming out is much more favorable to a Michael Bay than a Spielberg, with studios looking for competent makers of films who do as they are told within the formula rather than turning over vast sums of money to possible geniuses. I suspect that when the current big names die off, they will not be replaced by the next generation of geniuses, but instead by a generation of "do-as-you're-told" workmen.

Keep in mind too, that Hollywood has killed the independent film industry, so that modern independent films are either disguised studio films or truly independent in the sense that they are two guys in Iowa with a camera and $200 in their pocket.

AndrewPrice said...

Crispy, Apparently, people are paying for it. The drop in ticket sales and the fact that many of the top ten were not 3D this year, got many people thinking that 3D was a gimmick that had already worn thin. But the number don't bear that out (yet). Right now, ticket sales are relatively unchanged even though ticket prices have been going through the roof. So far at least, they haven't run into the price ceiling.

AndrewPrice said...

Crispy, I completely agree with you about the people who did something once and are now resting on their laurels -- they need to be tossed out. But so long as those people continue to do enough to make their constituents happy -- be they producers or voters in their states, nothing will change. And right now, they seem to be doing enough.

Wow, I feel like the bearer of bad news today: "yes, you're all screwed, it will only get worse, then we will all die a miserable death... deal with it." Yikes! Time to say something more hopeful....

I actually am hoping for change and I see some evidence that individual films are changing. Right now (and the point of this article) the statistics don't bear out any need for the studios to change. But that doesn't mean individual films can't change, or that something unusual can't happen. :-)

ScottDS said...

Andrew - on second thought, I realize that my comment about the number of films I've seen is simply my stock BH reply whenever the subject of falling movie attendance comes up. I typed it almost out of routine. However, yours is the article that disproves the theory. :-)

I just hope there's a happy medium between the "geniuses" and the "workmen." I wish I knew more about the studio system since, while I don't want to see a return to the Hays Code, they managed to do some things right.

CrispyRice said...

Well, maybe their constituents are all morons! ;)

Yes, shame on you for bearing all bad news today. But if that's as bad as it gets today, it'll be a pretty good day!

T_Rav said...

I think you're giving the 2000s short shrift. What about the epic clash of good and evil that was the Star Wars prequels? Or the heroic and completely original fight for independence in "Avatar"? I dare say these movies will go down as the "Citizen Kane"s of the 21st century.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I kind of figured that. But I do strive to be accurate and truthful. So, like I say, I wish the economics would force them to change, but the truth is that the economics say that they are doing quite well and have no reason to re-evaluate, except to find ways to cut costs -- which means more production in India, cheaper stars, fewer extras, and less CGI.

In terms of the geniuses, here's the problem. IF the studios know they can make $10 by following a formula, or they could make anything between $0 and $20 by handing the reins to a genius, it makes more sense for them to hire a workman and tell them exactly what they want to see on film. And with the studios becoming increasing corporate (many are now public corporations), the chances of them gambling go down. That means the only chance a genius has is to do something independently that lets them break in to the system already a success. That's my concern.

AndrewPrice said...

Crispy, Sadly, the morons get to vote too... especially in liberal enclaves. :-(

Yeah, I guess it is a good day when the bad news is that Hollywood is doing ok financially. LOL!

AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav, I almost included those as a joke in the list, but I decided I didn't want to look like an idiot if anyone missed the point to the joke! LOL!

Seriously though, the 2000s have produced very, very little that will survive even another decade. But the list of good movies from the 1990s is much longer than I had room to include here. It really is a stunning comparison.

And while I understand that the 1990s were a high point, the lack of good films from the 2000s is still startling, since I can't think of another decade that has done as poorly -- in fact, there are certain years (like 1984) that produced more better films that the entire list of films from the 2000 decade!

Tennessee Jed said...

Momento, Road to Perdition,Match Point, Capote. Maybe the issue is not that there aren't some good movies, but comparitively fewer. There is far more crap so on a percentage basis, there is no comparison to be sure between the decades. Consolidation to major corporate studios "playin' it safe." Yawn! And yet, isn't Hollywood getting some kind of OBAMASUBSIDY loyalty to the cause bonus?

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I'm not saying there weren't any good films in the 2000s, I'm saying that by comparison there were very few. I'm also saying that the reason is that the studios are going for safe films because:

1. they have proven profitable (i.e. they no longer take the risks it takes to find great films),

2. the studios are relying more on CGI to make films, which limits the story-telling ability,

3. the studios are much more concerned with dumbing-down films to attract people in foreign markets, and

4. finally, most films are now targeted at teenagers.

That's why I think they aren't turning out very many good films these days. And as long as that's profitable (and even more importantly -- a safe way to be profitable) there will be no change. If anything, it's only going to get worse as they refine how to make it even safer.

In terms of subsidies, I'm not sure what they're getting, but I am pretty sure that Hollywood gets more than it's fair share. If you count tax breaks (which the left always does) and tourism and film departments, then studios get huge subsidies. I don't know if they direct cash or not.

T_Rav said...

Andrew, I think Dark Knight will continue to stand out over time, as it holds a number of fascinating philosophical/psychological themes. So will LOTR, for obvious reasons, and Gladiator. And I think the first Narnia movie might as well.

I'm not sure why the movies of this decade are so much worse on average than the ones from the '90s, but I have an idea or two. Going back for a moment to the Star Wars prequels, I was wondering if you or anyone else had checked out the guy on the Red Letter Media site who just ripped them a new one. If not, you should check it out. It's pretty profane, and the narrator has a twisted serial killer demeanor that would make Greg Gutfeld flee the guy's house in terror, so it's pretty entertaining. But beyond all that, he makes some good points about the movies' main failing, which was that, even leaving out the gaping plot holes and over-reliance on CGI, the prequels simply failed to make an emotional connection with the audience, much less one on the level of the original trilogy.

I wonder if that's not the problem at large. Even if a particularly movie isn't bad, it can still miss being great. Look at the recent Oscar winners, stuff like "Slumdog Millionaire" and--gag--"Milk." Were they well-made? Yes. But they weren't superior films, because they didn't resonate with people. You couldn't root for anyone, either because the characters were forgettable or the theme was alienating. It goes beyond a movie's politics, though it may be that the studios and producers have become so concerned about being PC that they've let that get in the way of telling a story.

patti said...

i miss well-made movies. netflixes inception, so this weekend i'll see what the hubbub is bub.

(p.s. your "jerk" made me spit on myself! bwhahahaha! i swear, if we ever have the pleasure of meeting face to face, i'm gonna make you say it just so i can put your voice to it the next time i read it!)

AndrewPrice said...

T_Rav, I LOVE Red Letter Media! And I've seen his reviews several times because the guy is just brilliant. And I mean that with all it implies. He's like a movie savant, who can tell you not only about the big gaping holes in the plots and characters, but also where they went wrong in the construction of scenes, characters, plots, the confused and pointless dialog, and where they went wrong technically speaking, right down to how Lucas messes up the blocking. He really shows everything that's wrong with Lucas.

If I were making a film, I would honestly hire this guy to give it the once over and tell me where he sees problems.

In terms of getting into the characters, I think that's THE major problem with films today. It's very hard to feel anything for the characters because they aren't real anymore -- they make cardboard characters because it's easier, because they are afraid to make characters that people might not "get", because they mistake cynicism with drama, and because it's safer to make archetypes that everyone can understand and that will offend no one rather than it is to risk making characters that people can sympathize with, but who might offend some people.


AndrewPrice said...

(As an aside, on the issue of characters, tune in tomorrow morning when I discuss The Twilight Zone. Toward the end of that review I discuss something that I think has gone wrong with modern storytelling vis-a-vis the the characters, i.e. modern storytelling is not good at creating characters because it fails to grasp what makes us connect to characters.)

Will Dark Knight survive? Probably, but it's certainly lost a lot of it's luster already. LOTR? Yep. Gladiator. Yes. Narnia? Probably. But even if we accept those as being as good as the 1990s list (and I really don't accept that... not even close really), that's four films in a decade. That's hardly a ringing endorsement. Moreover, 2 of the 4 are from famous and beloved books, and the Dark Knight is a beloved comic book property. So they had a pretty good head start with three of the four before they even shot a frame. Also, Gladiator was made back at the beginning of 2000, when we were right at the end of the 1990s period.

So it's hard for me to say that these films show much strength in filmmaking in that decade, and certainly the four of them don't stand up against the entire production list of the 1990s... or the 1980s... or the 1970s.

AndrewPrice said...

Patti, LOL! It seemed like the right thing to say! :-)

I miss the good films too. I had no idea how good I had it in the 1990s, when I could see a film every couple weeks and leave the theater thinking, "that was pretty good." These days it's nothing but "you've got to be kidding me!" Grrr.

AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav & Scott,

One of the tests I use to decide how well something is written is I think about what I would change -- either in terms of the plot, the characters, the dialog, etc. The less that I would change, the more solid the writing.

When I look back on the better films in the 1990s, there is very little that I would change. In some cases, there is nothing -- like The Sixth Sense.

But there hasn't been a film this entire decade where I don't find myself sitting there saying, "they need to take that out," "they should add this," "wow, that was a mistake, they should have _____ instead." Even the dialog has gotten incredibly weak -- too many words, the wrong words, talking around the point, over-reliance on small words or vague words, cliches, stolen lines, etc. And in so many cases these days, the movies are such a mess that there's literally nothing I would save except the overall idea of making a movie about ____. That was rare in the past.

T_Rav said...

Andrew, I'll never be able to look at pizza rolls--or cats--the same way again. And yes, twisted jokes aside, he can deliver a purely devastating critique. Putting up all the pics of the CGI work at the end and using Lucas' own 1977 interview about using special effects to supplement a story, not the other way around, as a voice-over was so cruel, and yet so deserved.

I don't know how fair it is, though, to compare the best films of the 2000s to those of the '90s. I mean, yeah you can poke holes in the former, but you can do that with the latter as well. "Terminator 2"? Great, but it never really explained the implications of time travel or changing the past. "Independence Day"? Got a little too sentimental and cliche towards the end, in my opinion. Doesn't mean I don't enjoy the films; I do. But when you break them down, there are very few movies that can claim to be perfectly done. And that's all right, I think, as long as they can tell a compelling story with interesting characters. So while I agree that movies this decade were sub-par overall compared to before, I would argue that the best films of each can stand together.

Can't wait for tomorrow--caught part of SciFi's (I refuse to call it Syfy) "Twilight Zone" marathon over New Year's and remembered how much I love that series.

AndrewPrice said...

T_Rav, Yeah, pizza rolls now mean something completely different to me! LOL!

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that 1990s movies were perfect or that there are no good movies in the 2000s, what I'm saying is that there are a lot of 1990s movies that fell into the very good category (and that have shown they have staying power), and that there weren't nearly as many in the 2000s, and the generally, even the better films from the 2000s were worse.

I wrote the Twilight Zone review last weekend when I watching the same marathon -- great stuff!!

AndrewPrice said...

By the way, if anyone hasn't seen these to reviews we're talking about in the comments, here's the link to the Red Letter Media site: LINK.

But be warned, this is not even close to safe for work!

Ed said...

I don't know if this is good news or bad news? On the one hand, it's good that Americans know how to make money. On the other hand, I too wish they would improve their quality. Definitely mixed feelings here.

Post a Comment