movies matter | criticism by maryann johanson
Sat Aug 13 2016, 03:50pm | 22 comments
There are only so many cinemagoers, and they only go to so many films a year. If there are 30 new films at their local megaplex in a year, they may see 20. If there are 100 films, they’ll still only see 20.
Doesn’t this run counter to the claim that WB/DC’s problem is that the last three films aren’t fanservice-y enough? (It does.)
Well, that’s something to that. Since 2000, U.S. ticket sales have been pretty constant: a median of about 1.4 billion sold with a variation of only about +/- 10%. And in that time frame the number of films released has risen from 478 in 2000 to 701 in 2015.
But it’s not the major studios driving that. In 2000, about 80 studios released films. The top 10 studios (by revenue) released 159 of those 478, or 33%. In 2015, 150 studios released films, and the top 10 only released 151 films, or 22%. So, the major studios are being fairly consistent in their number of releases.
So, you’re right that people are seeing the about same number of movies. (Actually, fewer movies, if you account for population increases.) But, the number of major releases isn’t really changing much. I think it may feel that way because marketing saturation may be increasing, due to that few tickets sold per person factor.
Well, you can make a film just for the fans, or just for a general audience, or try to cover both. Go too far with the fanservice (what is Margot Robbie’s costume in SS if not fanservice?) and you get an incoherent mess of spot-the-cool-moment. Go too far with the general audience and the fans set up negative buzz (though that may not matter as much as it used to).
Yes, this isn’t necessarily a problem that the studios have brought on themselves (though I suppose that by not making enough interesting films they may be encouraging aspiring filmmakers to go off on their own rather than join a studio). It is, however, a problem they have to live with.
I am genuinely surprised to learn that there aren’t any more big-studio releases than 15 years ago; this reinforces my guess that the studios’ answer to this problem is heavy marketing to try to suck people into their film rather than the others. Which works up to a point. (Also, I’ve only been reviewing trailers for a year or so, and so I’m much more aware of upcoming releases than I was a few years back.)
Another thing to consider is that more films means more competition even in small niches. You can’t have the only sci-fi actioner of the summer any more, so you don’t have the guaranteed audience of people who like sci-fi actioners; you’re fighting for them as well as for the general audience.
The terms “fanservice”, much like “mary sue”, has gotten a bit more generalized over time. There is a significant portion of Harley fans, who feel very much unserviced by SS, that say the only version of Harley that is not an abomination is this: http://goo.gl/18XBdC
Anyway, my point is, in all the (borderline obsessive) analysis of the current batch of WB/DC movies, there are these two competing and contradictory narratives about why they’re struggling*. They’ve clearly tried to broaden the appeal by making the stories more grounded, by making the Trinity less than “perfect”** – for which “fans” have raked them across the coals for the “grimdark” and the “lack of understanding the characters” – but then people like Mendelson here accuse them of making “movies ‘for fans’ and fans only”. If the goal is to get Jon Berg and Geoff Johns to do something different, they’d be right to wonder who exactly to listen to.
* For values of “struggling” that result in just under $2B in worldwide ticket sales in three movies
** YMMV, obviously, on the level of success. SS is the first I didn’t enjoy more than not.
though I suppose that by not making enough interesting films they may be encouraging aspiring filmmakers to go off on their own rather than join a studio
Wouldn’t the proliferation of HD digital cameras (which lowered the cost barrier for reasonably high production quality filmmaking) and hard drive-based digital projection (which lowered the cost barrier on distribution to theaters) be the bigger factors here? When you don’t need the studios’ equipment or distro pathways, you can form your own studio a lot more easily.
Yes, fair point on the separate stories; I’m merely speculating on how they might both be valid.
And of course fans (by which I mean, here, “people who know the characters and want to see them in a film”) aren’t unified either – I don’t imagine all that many people like both the B:TAS version and the New 52 version of Harley Quinn. Some of them love grimdark.
It was a speculation more than a serious proposal. Isn’t it traditional to start by working for other people, not just for the equipment, but to develop one’s skills?
Except we aren’t seeing that happening. What we are seeing is a proliferation of movies with serious talent involved going to straight to VOD (way more than we ever saw going straight to DVD). There are too many of these movies, too.
That’s still a tech issue, though, isn’t it? At a fundamental level, movies are very cheap to make and distribute. Major studios have a lot more mouths to feed.
The tech is cheap, but the people who can use the tech well are expensive. (As in pretty much all human endeavour after the 1970s, really.)
The standard corporate answer to this is to set a low bar for “good enough” and discourage people from doing any better (“deskilling”), and then to wonder why their output is rubbish.
Movies *can* theoretically be cheap to make. But the studios are putting all their eggs in $250 million baskets.
Maybe not as many as one might think. Since we’re using Warners as our quintessential bad studio, I looked at its 25 releases from 2015. Only 5 had (reported) budgets of $100M or more. Only one – Jupiter Ascending, at $176M – cost more than $150. $250M is rarefied air. And it can be hit or miss. Consider that Avenger:Age of Ultron (miss) cost the same to make as Captain America: Civil War (hit). Or, back at WB (and more crowded budget territory), Mad Max: Fury Road had the same budget as Pan.
But this all gets away from my answer to why there are so many movies, made by so many more studios, while the major studios are making about the same number, with budget increases that are surprisingly close to inflation rates. (For example, Superman, in 1978, cost only about $10 M more, in 2013 dollars, than Man of Steel.)
I think what they mean by ‘fans’ in that case is, the old-fashioned root of it, ‘fanatic’ — as in a zealot partisan who has yielded up all discernment of their own, in favour of feeling a part of something greater than themselves. Their ‘alignment’ so to speak is DC, as an earlier era might have called themselves the ‘Greens’ or the ‘Blues’ with that encompassing more than simply sports teams in the circus.
Thus the tendency to froth and threaten anyone who strikes at their flag, so to speak — whereas the other definition of fan encompasses those of us who have always prided ourselves on our discernment as much as our devotion, and our right to ‘talk back’ to authorities when those authorities obviously didn’t give a damn about their IP or their fandoms. The ‘fans in the wilderness’ who knitted scarves from hand-copied patterns passed around from friend to friend, and crafted little K-9s and Tardises out of polymer clay and tinfoil, when nobody in power, certainly not the BBC, could imagine Dr. Who ever being a profitable property, who kept the Trek flame burning and all the rest.
We are the bad sort of fans, the ones who won’t just yum up any old slop they put in front of us, or buy any old tat just because it has a beloved iconic logo slapped across it, the ones who catch them in little slips and big ones, and point them out in public — we’re not REAL fans, according to the people in authority, who find us an unsatisfactory flock for the shearing.
WB had a lot more faith and enthusiasm for Pan than MMFR, however — that was the one they were convinced would be their HP-replacing YA franchise, and take the Chinese market by storm, while they barely promoted MMFR, didn’t even try submitting it to China for all I have been able to find out, and keep waffling on whether they are going to continue with the series, despite the raving public and critical enthusiasm for it. Instead, they wanted to back a male dominated, white supremacist Chosen One fantasy that everyone said from day one was going to fail, bigly, and remained in denial until it fell just as hard in China as at home.
And, to cap off the irony, they could have had George Miller as the auteur behind their DCEU, instead of Snyder…
You have to take into account the advertising budgets, though — that can add a vast amount more to the real cost of a film, although it can pay off just as hugely (I learned today to my surprise that MGM spent almost exactly the same to market Ben-Hur in 1959 as it did to make it!)
They’re subsetting fans into their preferred demographic of ‘stereotypical white males age 18-35 who simply lap up whatever we give to them so long as it doesn’t require them to see capable women, and/or non-white men, some of whom may be disabled, saving the day even if they share the stage with traditional young white male heroes, because that will make them uncomfortable, especially if the latter are shown as shirtless and desirable’ — the rest of us, naturally, don’t count as fans and thus don’t get any fanservice.
And this is what I mean by geekiness getting consumed by corporate marketing, just as free love and punk did in their time. If you were a fan of things vaguely geeky in the 1980s or 1990s, you had to work to find it at all. So that was what people expected fans to do. And there wasn’t much money in it, so the big guys mostly didn’t try to get in on the act.
Now there’s a new “geek” film every few weeks and it’s just another marketing category, fed from the same vat of slop as all the other marketing categories. Chow down, boys, it’s time to go to market.
I can’t really take advertising budgets into account because studios don’t generally report that information. All one can do is make assumptions about the effects of advertising on total costs. (Mine is that advertising budgets generally scale linearly with production budgets, in which case that added cost becomes a wash when considering the relative costs of different films. But that is, as I say, as assumption.)
So much faith that they released their Harry Potter-replacement… in October?
Also, have you read what Miller and his team had in mind for JL? Whatever you think of Snyder, we dodged a bullet there. Almost as much as the Burton/Cage Superman.
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