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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

question of the day: Will the Great Recession force Hollywood to be more creative?

Friday’s question, about whether this has been the worst summer for movies ever, made me wonder if this summer has been a blip or if, perhaps, it’s a state of affairs we should expect to continue for the next several years. For Hollywood does operate on a years-long planning schedule, and the movies we’ll get next summer have already been put into motion.

I’m not hopeful that next summer will be better when I read what Patrick Goldstein at The Big Picture has to say in a post gloomily titled “Is Hollywood settling into a prolonged recession of its own?”:

To hear people talk, this summer the industry may have hit the bottom of the market. That is, unless things get even worse. First off, there are fewer buyers than ever before. Most of the specialty divisions have been shuttered, New Line has been absorbed into Warners, MGM is in suspended animation and of the six remaining major studios, at least two — Universal and Sony — have spent all of their development money for the year, putting a big crimp in the marketplace. (The studios in question say they are still developing projects if the right one comes along, but according to every agent and manager I spoke to, the packages are awfully few and far between.)

Wherever you look, there is consolidation and financial stress as people have been forced to adjust to a Darwinian thinning of the herd. “You’d have to say that this summer we probably hit bottom, certainly creatively, with so many studios relying on so much pre-sold branded product,” said one top agent. “It’s really hard, because so much money has left the business, there are fewer distributors than ever before and many of the ones that are left have cash problems, so it’s just agonizingly difficult to get a movie up and running right now.”

A Darwinian thinning of the herd should, theoretically, leave the strong and the clever still standing. I mean, cleverness isn’t automatically a survival skill in Hollywood, not when so much that’s dumb sells so well, and certainly not when only two of the top 10 box office movies of 2010 so far are entirely original. Still, one might expect — or perhaps merely one might hope fervently and keep one’s fingers crossed — that a tightening of the belt would mean a touch more creativity in our movies. Because for all the based-on-existing-material films that succeeded this year, there were plenty that were big-budget failures, too.

Goldstein doesn’t offer much hope, however:

Even worse, the kind of movie a studio will finance right now has narrowed considerably. Studios will spend fortunes on their big tentpole or franchise movies, because those are the movies that move the needle, both in terms of making the best use of studio marketing dollars and attracting audiences around the globe, which is where the biggest profits are these days. When it comes to the kind of films that talent want to make — ones with slightly loftier aspirations — the studios will only play ball on their terms and on their schedule, forcing everyone involved to work for what in Hollywood passes for peanuts.

On the other hand:

You could actually make the case that it’s an especially good time to invest in the movie business. With studio releases down perhaps as much as 25%, films can play longer with less competition for the moviegoing dollar. (And with fewer studios to advertise, ad rates could dip as well.) Physical distribution costs are going down as well, thanks to the arrival of digital distribution. And best of all, at least to an investor, talent costs are way down, with only a precious few stars getting first-dollar gross, so a new investor could get to profit faster than ever, even if they are making a star vehicle.

Are you hopeful? Will the Great Recession force Hollywood to be more creative? Even if it means we have to wait until 2013 or 2014 to see a new creativity busting out?

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTD sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)

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  • Can a movie created by an independent filmmaker that can be made for under $30 million – over these bloated budget breakers that Hollywood wants to keep spending on – generate enough market interest for good box office business? Part of me is thinking about Tyler Perry in this regard. Part of me wonders if studio-led film making is viable as we draw nearer to a direct download market.

    I also wonder about those days of multi-million dollar contracts that actors used to sign – Jim Carrey in a 60 million deal! Will Smith to shoot four movies for 80 million! Tom Cruise to earn enough to buy Dubai for the next Mission Impossible! – which seemed to contribute more to the expense of film making more than the SFX budgets. Perhaps more sensible actors wages will be the result?

  • RogerBW

    As usual, it’s all about the money.

    Bring in financiers who want to take a chance on something original, and something original will get made. Keep the ones who are investing other people’s money, who aren’t looking for a return much above any other investment but want that return guaranteed… and you’ll get more of the potted movie product that we’re seeing now.

    “Knight and Day” is “original” in the sense of not being a franchise. But it’s still a product of the Script-o-Matic, hanging on its bankable stars; it’s still playing it safe.

  • MaryAnn

    Can a movie created by an independent filmmaker that can be made for under $30 million – over these bloated budget breakers that Hollywood wants to keep spending on – generate enough market interest for good box office business?

    *The Last Exorcism* cost less than $2 million to make and has so far grossed more than $32 million. That’s a far wider profit margin than many “blockbusters.” So yes, it can be done.

    Throwing money at a movie — as with saturation marketing — has been Hollywood’s substitute for cleverness and creativity. But obviously there is a place for a small film that is clever and creative.

  • nyjm

    One might hope that the big studios might take a financial lesson from The Last Exorcism, and move away from this philosophy of throwing money at the “tent-pole” films (which are usually mediocre at best. I’ve seen plenty of great films made with modest budgets (and in the past plenty were made here in the U.S.).

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