A Curmudgeon's Lament
I have just finished Edward Jay Epstein's The Big Picture, sub-titled The New Logic of Money and Power in Hollywood. I am depressed. I am again informed, as my children have been telling me for some years now, that I'm outdated, not with it, way behind the curve, a dinosaur, mired in the past — need I go on? You see Mr. Epstein has shown me that even my film language is no longer relevant: box-office gross, B pictures, blockbuster, first-run-terms used to indicate the status and relative success of a film, are obsolete, meaningless, simple nostalgia words from the earlier studio days that no longer exist. Gone is the era of big studios who controlled every aspect and distribution of the films they produced; when the measure of a film was reckoned by the number of admission tickets sold; when films were aimed at adults who were thought to be reasonably literate enough to follow dialogue; when children and teens were not considered a profitable target audience — well, until Disney came along.
So what is the force that shapes and determines the films we see? Why, those same feckless, sulky, electronic-game playing youth once ignored and the theater managers who cater to their puerile tastes and pleasures. Note this quote from Mr. Epstein's book of a multiplex owner: (referring to the types of film preferred) "The less dialogue the better. The teens that come to our theaters want car chases, bombs, a few beautiful bodies, and mind bending effects." That's where the money is — actually the money for the theater owner is in the overly salted popcorn sold at concessions — a ninety-cent profit for every dollar spent, I learned.
The majority of films don't turn a profit at all, nor are they necessarily expected to. The real dough flows in from a host of other sources: concession sales, DVD and video distribution sales and rentals, airlines, foreign leases, network and cable television and most lucrative of all, toys and game spin-offs. A few very lucky hi-tech productions like the Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter films paid their way through admission tickets and although no longer in theaters still generate substantial profits. For the most part though, all films are 'first-run', all 'bomb' so to speak for after the first two weekend showings revenues drop swiftly and must be replaced by new first-runs to keep the corn-pop popping.
If you’ve wondered why cable film channels seem to endlessly recycle the same tiresome films, rarely introducing one of more recent vintage, Mr. Epstein has the answer. Cable companies lease their films from the studios; an especially popular film can go for up to five million dollars. For this cost the cable company can run the film as many times as it wishes for seven years — after which it’s presumably leased out to yet another company. Even a poor film like "Joe Dirt" will make money someplace.
I'll tell you it just seems like no use in singling out any one person to blame for the state of film. Almost everyone in the world, in addition to writers, producers and directors, gets in his two cents in determining what kinds of film you'll get to see and what you'll get to see in their making: the stars (contractual right to change anything that might diminish their image); ethnic and animal rights groups (cruel and abusive treatment of insects is forbidden); lawyers (censor out anything possibly libelous); insurance companies (delete situations that might injure cast members or delay or stop production); banks (reluctant to lend money on scripts that don't promise a winner); international censors (films intended for overseas distribution, and most are, may have scenes deleted or added to avoid offending the audience of the country where shown — Britain does not permit head-butting to be seen in films); and, of course, the heads of large multiplex movie chains and, while I'm not sure of this, pop-corn manufacturers. This is democracy for you, I guess.
All considered then it seems I've been beating my head against the wall as well a beating a dead horse — we anachronisms do that you know. What is the use of railing against Hollywood's lack of originality? Why deplore the absence of sophisticated films for grown-up people? Does it do any good whatsoever to point out that our films make absolutely no appeal to our minds, only the body? Remorsefully I can only sigh and set about overhauling my creaky film vocabulary to include those words and terms that are needed today to properly weigh the merits of film: above-the-line costs (not forgetting below-the-line costs), gross participants share, net participants share, combined market share, competitive positioning reports, completion bonds, credit bonuses, pay or play clauses, marketing feed-back, and I've really got to learn more about the Financial Interest and Syndication Rule. Oh, the horror, the horror.