Amazing: A Long, Detailed Article On Hollywood's Struggles... That Never Mentions File Sharing

from the a-failure-to-take-risks dept

On the Media points us to an worthwhile article at GQ by Mark Harris that explores why all the major Hollywood studios are so afraid to invest in new quality films these days. Instead, it's all about sequels and derivative works -- anything that comes prebuilt with a "brand" because the marketing execs at the studios believe that with that brand, it's more likely to clear the hurdle to get enough people to pay to go see it:
Such an unrelenting focus on the sell rather than the goods may be why so many of the dispiritingly awful movies that studios throw at us look as if they were planned from the poster backward rather than from the good idea forward. Marketers revere the idea of brands, because a brand means that somebody, somewhere, once bought the thing they're now trying to sell. The Magic 8 Ball (tragically, yes, there is going to be a Magic 8 Ball movie) is a brand because it was a toy. Pirates of the Caribbean is a brand because it was a ride. Harry Potter is a brand because it was a series of books. Jonah Hex is a brand because it was a comic book. (Here lies one fallacy of putting marketers in charge of everything: Sometimes they forget to ask if it's a good brand.) Sequels are brands. Remakes are brands. For a good long stretch, movie stars were considered brands; this was the era in which magazines like Premiere attempted to quantify the waxing or waning clout of actors and actresses from year to year because, to the industry, having the right star seemed to be the ultimate hedge against failure.

But after three or four hundred cases in which that didn't prove out, Hollywood's obsession with star power has started to erode. In the last several years, a new rule of operation has taken over: The movie itself has to be the brand. And because a brand is, by definition, familiar, a brand is also, by definition, not original. The fear of nonbranded movies can occasionally approach the ridiculous, as it did in 2006 when Martin Scorsese's The Departed was widely viewed within the industry as a "surprise" hit, primarily because of its R rating and unfamiliar source material. It may not have been a brand, but, says its producer Graham King, "Risky? With the guy I think is the greatest living director and Nicholson, Matt Damon, Wahlberg, and Leo? If you're at a studio and you can't market that movie, then you shouldn't be in business."

Inception was not a brand, which is why nobody with a marketing background is too eager to go find the next Inception—although ironically, any studio in town would eagerly green-light Inception 2. On the other hand, as you read this, the person who gave the go-ahead to Fast Five, the (I hate to prejudge, but...) utterly unnecessary fifth installment in the Vin Diesel–Paul Walker epic The Fast and the Furious, is sleeping soundly right now, possibly even at his desk. On June 10, 2011, he will bestow on several thousand screens a product that people have already purchased four times before. How can it miss?
The article opens with a nice description of how no one in Hollywood thought Inception would succeed, and how they kept coming up with excuses as to why it would fail, or why it was an exception. They never seemed to consider the idea that people would actually be fine with supporting a good movie rather than a brand. Honestly, the first half of the article sounds almost identical to Kevin Smith's Sundance speech about what Hollywood is focused on these days. They don't take risks. They don't focus on quality. They focus on what's the closest to a formula they know will sell.

But what struck me as interesting about the article is that they don't mention file sharing at all. This is a really nice surprise. We keep hearing from the MPAA and others in the movie industry that the only reason some Hollywood studios are struggling (and, let's face it, "struggle" is a relative term, given the continuing records at the box office) is because of those darn kids on the internet with their file sharing ways. It's great to see that people are actually focusing in on the real causes of innovation stagnation in the industry, rather than picking an easy (but incorrect) target and lumping all of the blame in that direction.

One other interesting point is that the article notes that many of the folks who, in the past, might strive for a creative, high quality, Hollywood movie are, instead, now focused on getting a TV show on cable (HBO, Showtime, etc.). And, once again, this is a sign of how the world adapts. For all the complaints of how one area is struggling, it doesn't mean that good stories don't get told. They just adapt to the changing market. The only point that it seems the article could have paid more attention to is the state of true independent film these days (rather than the faux-independent stuff that's really from studios), and how there are all sorts of new creative ideas coming out of that market, as they no longer kowtow to the studio gatekeepers, but now realize there are alternative funding, distribution and promotion mechanisms out there.


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  1.  
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    ChurchHatesTucker (profile), Mar 4th, 2011 @ 6:43pm

    Good eye

    I read that same article and didn't even notice what wasn't there. Nice catch.

     

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    Anonymous Poster, Mar 4th, 2011 @ 6:59pm

    Thanks for pointing this article out!

     

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  3.  
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    cc (profile), Mar 4th, 2011 @ 7:34pm

    Star power still exists, but the stars are the director and scriptwriters, not so much the actors. Inception wasn't itself a brand, but Christopher Nolan most definitely is.

     

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    Fentex, Mar 4th, 2011 @ 7:37pm

    Inception

    The article opens with a nice description of how no one in Hollywood thought Inception would succeed, and how they kept coming up with excuses as to why it would fail, or why it was an exception. They never seemed to consider the idea that people would actually be fine with supporting a good movie rather than a brand.
    I wnet to see Inception because it was a movie made by Christopher Nolan. And I suspect his reputation had a lot to do with it's success. Which suggests to me that the concept of brand is not entirely missing form it's success - in marketing terms it had the imprimatuer of the Christopher Nolan brand. Which given his name became widely recognized because of the success he made at producing for the Batman brand, well, suggests Inceptions success supports rather than undermones the argument for investing in brands.

     

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    Joseph K (profile), Mar 4th, 2011 @ 7:57pm

    Competition

    It's a good article, but I think he really fails to see how the major studios have grown more cautious because they face a lot more very real competition than they did in the past: tv, video games, independent films. Video games particularly eat into that key young male demographic, and independent films really eat into those older demographics, and tv just hurts them all around. The problem is that instead of trying to compete by really innovating and taking risks, they've gone the other direction and become excessively cautious.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 4th, 2011 @ 8:03pm

    Re: Competition

    Movie properties turned into video games are the worst. Not always but most of the time. Video games turned into movies are the second worst. Not always but most of the time.

     

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  7.  
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    Jay (profile), Mar 4th, 2011 @ 10:39pm

    Re: Re: Competition

    Scott Pilgrim. I'm STILL mad at Expendables for ruining that box office of that movie!

     

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    Lauriel (profile), Mar 5th, 2011 @ 12:16am

    Re: Competition

    Can someone please tell me why the young male demographic is key? It used to be that they were the ones with the most disposable income- before they settled down with wife and family, and young women didn't have the same earning power. I'd be very interested to know if this is still the case.

    I'm in an all female household, we love scifi and gaming. These two areas seem specifically targeted at the young male. Can someone point me in the right direction of studies that validate this conception? I've asked the odd director or producer that wades into a public forum, but they do the equivalent of 'move along, nothing to see here', if not outright ignore the question.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 5th, 2011 @ 3:48am

    Re: Re: Competition

     

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    Not an Electronic Rodent (profile), Mar 5th, 2011 @ 8:02am

    Re: Competition

    It's a good article, but I think he really fails to see how the major studios have grown more cautious because they face a lot more very real competition than they did in the past
    True enough though I think that he's still right. The competition (and even to some extent *gasp* file sharing - that is after all a form of competition too) are possibly the driving factors pushing them in the wrong direction but the direction is still the major problem.

    I think the competition factor makes them run in the direction of brand because it's a thing they think they can understand and sell. Except it's a faux-safety like hiding under a tree in a lightning storm - sure it'll shelter you from the rain but the rain isn't what you should be worried about, rain doesn't kill you.

    To me, brand is like the sweet wrapper that catches the eye - a thing that might make you think "ooh that looks yummy". Once you try it, if it's disgusting it doesn't matter how shiny the wrapper you're not likely to be tempted again.

    That's how I pick films to watch - a plot synopsis that sounds interesting, or an involving or intrigueing tralier that doesn't immediately make me think that all the good bits of the film are in the trailer, a good cast of actors who's acting I enjoy, ideally coupled with a director (or writer though god knows too many films seem written by committee) who's work I've enjoyed before. The purely marketing "Look it's got a NAME on it!" elements of "brand" comes in firmly after those things and as a double-edged sword having been often burnt in the past.

    Bottom line, as it says "brand" isn't the answer, good product is (and good product makes a brand not the other way round). Except "good product" is a bit too nebulous for marketers to latch onto and "sell sell sell".

     

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    Rekrul, Mar 5th, 2011 @ 8:51am

    For a good long stretch, movie stars were considered brands; this was the era in which magazines like Premiere attempted to quantify the waxing or waning clout of actors and actresses from year to year because, to the industry, having the right star seemed to be the ultimate hedge against failure.

    Yes, because that worked so well for movies like Stroker Ace (Burt Reynolds), Rhinestone (Sylvester Stallone & Dolly Parton), Ishtar (Warren Beatty, Dustin Hoffman) and others...

     

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    Chargone (profile), Mar 5th, 2011 @ 12:49pm

    Re:

    humm. I'd call that a good shift, i think. they are the people who affect the quality of the movie, after all.

     

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    Chargone (profile), Mar 5th, 2011 @ 12:50pm

    Re: Inception

    sort of, sort of not.

    if you think of brand as director/writer, then it's roughly analogous to Author, and it becomes a somewhat logical plan.

    if you think of it as Movie, then it's roughly analogous to book, and becomes a lot more questionable and a lot less reliable.

     

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    packrat (profile), Mar 5th, 2011 @ 6:28pm

    point

    got a 100 million $ you don't mind tossing away? (I think 8/10 movies are still failures).

    Hollywood hits the formula hard. People it. (stargate went by the numbers, longest lived, most successful spinoffs, merchandized all to hades, etc)

    this is all the golden mean (sterling's twight zone, anyone?) being applied. Nothing new.

    movies as a brand? Can you say spiderman? Argue with moiney. Quality over quanity? entertainment is the good guy winning. (ANY star trek episode)

    You want content to supersede form and delivery?

    har-har-har-har... um... thinking doesn't sell well, but you're welcome to try it.. You drug dealing, child=molesting evolutionist. Everything/ anything is a motherhood issue to (a rabid loon) someone.

    think smoking. even determined efforts to stomp it out, or promot 'healthy' living, etc.

    Delivery control to be rock-solid? They'd cut their own throats post-haste if they had it. (Look at quality control in ANY monopoly situation. (the wqater+power freaks can now put on their tinfoil hats for a couple minutes)

    It's a GREAT way of destroying them, by me. Check the sprio agnew censorship models on (childrens cartoons) sometimes. When enough people left TV, they changed the model.

    sad fact. To get around entrenched deadwood, you create a NEW tv station, unburdened with blue-bloods, suits, burn-outs etc.

    and hope.

    we ARE that new TV station. Surfing a lynch mob.
    being nibbled to death by internal and external !DUCK!s tape(worms)

    now go prove it, and remeber that 100 million $ gets a LOT of attention from .. some fairly unscrupulous' players.

    packrat

     

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    Brandon (profile), Mar 7th, 2011 @ 10:11am

    Re: Re: Competition

    That's just it, Lauriel; the young male demographic isn't key anymore. If you haven't already I would recommend taking a look at Johanna Blakley's talk at TED in which she demolishes the perception that demographics are a valuable metric in our online culture.

     

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    chris (profile), Mar 7th, 2011 @ 10:35am

    Re: Re: Competition

    young males buy games and go to the movies. they buy games and go to the movies because games and movies are geared for them. it's practically a tautology.

    FTFA:

    In Hollywood, though, not all quadrants are created equal. If you, for instance, have a vagina, you're pretty much out of luck, because women, in studio thinking, are considered a niche audience that, except when Sandra Bullock reads a script or Nicholas Sparks writes a novel, generally isn't worth taking the time to figure out. And if you were born before 1985... well, it is my sad duty to inform you that in the eyes of Hollywood, you are one of what the kids on the Internet call "the olds." I know—you thought you were one of the kids on the Internet. Not to the studios, which have realized that the closer you get to (or the farther you get from) your thirtieth birthday, the more likely you are to develop things like taste and discernment, which render you such an exhausting proposition in terms of selling a movie that, well, you might as well have a vagina.

     

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    chris (profile), Mar 7th, 2011 @ 10:40am

    Re: Re: Competition

    a plot synopsis that sounds interesting, or an involving or intrigueing tralier that doesn't immediately make me think that all the good bits of the film are in the trailer

    excessive marketing has a negative effect on me. to this day i haven't seen films like "minority report" or "the transformers" because i saw too many commercials for them.

     

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    Not an Electronic Rodent (profile), Mar 7th, 2011 @ 3:21pm

    Re: Re: Re: Competition

    excessive marketing has a negative effect on me. to this day i haven't seen films like "minority report" or "the transformers" because i saw too many commercials for them
    It helps if you're massively cynical and discount 99% of what's written and read enough to stand a chance of inferring what's not written. Or in the case of trailers attempting to extrapolate the plot from known plots - hollywood don't use that many after all. I didn't say I actually believed it all :-) Hardly 100% reliable though I'll grant you.

     

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  19.  
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    MD, Mar 8th, 2011 @ 5:38am

    Not Just Movies

    Surprisingly, this is exactly the same problem with... MUSIC!

    Watch American Idol, if you dare. The singers all try to do what is best described as "vocal gymnastics" rather than singing a song, because they know that is what the music industry is looking for. As a result, the same formula mentality in the record labels keeps trying to push out the same crap, and when it doesn't sell, they need to find scapegoats.

     

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