Thursday, 10 February 2011

Hollywood Babble On & On #675: Summer Movie Pile Up

Welcome to the show folks...

The folks at The Wrap have noticed the inevitable, there will be a veritable traffic jam of big budget blockbuster movies this summer with 14 big openings over a 12 week period.

Give me a second to get my smart glasses and my professorial pipe, and I'll explain how this situation came to be.

I say this was inevitable because Hollywood's been building towards it for a very long time. Ironically, it's a repeat of the philosophy that began in the 1950s with the rise of television and almost brought to bankruptcy in the late 1960s before it was revolutionized by the film school/TV generation.

That generation created a flood of smaller films that did big business. That business led to them making bigger films inspired by the adventure serials and genre films they enjoyed as kids, and they did even bigger business and the blockbuster movie era was born.

Smaller films were still being made by the big studios, but in recent years those films have become fewer and fewer in number as the studios repeat the aforementioned history by putting all their eggs in the blockbuster movie basket.

There are two sets of reasons for this situation, and it's more than just the folks running Hollywood not remembering any history, and those reasons are both corporate and social.

CORPORATE: When the "high concept" revolution hit in the 1970s, the studios went from being borderline bankrupt basket cases to become the darlings of Wall Street, especially the junk bond dealers looking to make billions from the mergers and acquisition frenzy of the 1980s and 1990s. Big companies saw the chance to become even bigger companies and went nuts, buying up each other with wild abandon.

Big conglomerates bought newspapers, book publishers, TV networks, cable channels, and movie studios, then mushed them all together into the new conglomerates that we now know and love as the Big Media companies. These new media giants had a strategy, it was called "synergy." In theory, the studios would make movies and TV shows, many from books provided by their publishing wing, the networks and cable channels would air them, and the newspapers would promote them. In theory everything would be done in house, creating a perfectly oiled machine that chugged along making billions for all involved.

In theory.

In theory Communism works.

And corporate synergy works as well in the real world as communism.

The reality of the situation turned out to be very different. Instead of an efficient well oiled machine they usually ended up with a top heavy rattling contraption whose gears often seized up from sheer weight. Instead of having the security of size, these companies became incredibly insecure, having accrued massive debts in their merger binge. Executives lost their nerve, having no real ownership or investment of their own in the company or its legacy, outside of a desire to cash their bonus and not get fired, they fell back on the familiar. Like remakes of old and not so old movies, big screen versions of old TV shows already owned by the company, and comic books.

Also, big corporations need big returns, partly to cover their exploding overheads, like buying TV ad-time from their own networks. Such ad time always seems to cost more and more, mostly to pay for the debts incurred during the mergers. Plus, pursuing the elusive mega-blockbuster also helps cover the fact that their own shoddy business practices are responsible for production costs having a rate of inflation similar to Zimbabwe. In the 1980s, a movie making $100 million in ticket sales was considered a blockbuster smash hit, nowadays, that wouldn't cover the production costs of any film with more than one "A-List" star in it. So now even "modest" Hollywood movies have to make at least $200 million to at least break even. The idea of making smaller budgeted, modestly profitable films are anathema to them, if it doesn't have the potential to break any box-office records, they don't even want to look at it.

Of course to break those records they need to target an audience with disposable cash and time on their hands. That audience is the tween-teenager crowd, the cash is their parents, and that time on their hands comes in the summertime. It looks good from a corporate perspective, because you can advertise on the cheaper youth oriented channels like MTV and rely on the little bastards to spread the word for free via Facebook and other social networks.

SOCIAL: This reason is all about convenience, or to be more exact, the lack of it. Back in the Golden Age of Hollywood most folks in the cities and mid-sized towns could just walk on down to the local Bijou and catch a double feature for a quarter. Times have changed, drastically. For one thing, since the 1950s North America has become a car dependent culture. People drive everywhere, and thanks to suburban sprawl, they have to drive everywhere.

The idea of just strolling to the neighborhood theatre has been replaced with loading the family into the car, paying for the gas that takes the family to the mall that houses the local 100 screen cineplex, paying for parking, then paying over $10 a head to get into the theatre to see the movie, then there's the popcorn, sodas, and other stuff you have to pay for. What was once something that could be done almost entirely on whimsy, is now a major expedition for a large percentage of movie-goers.

Now studios think, and they may be right about it, even a broken clock is right twice a day, that all these expenses, hassles, and other impediments have convinced moviegoers that if they're going to all that expense and effort, they're going to want to see something big. They're not going through all that for a modest little drama, they need big stories, with big stars, big action, and big special effects to get them off their collective duffs and to plant those duffs in theatre seats.

Now those reasons come together when it comes to timing. When do people, especially the younger target audience have the time to go to the movies? The summer, when school is out, and families are on vacation. TV is mostly in reruns, or cheap reality/filler programs, so not only is competition for attention down slightly, so is the price of TV ad time.

However this creates an extremely narrow window for studios to plop out the blockbusters they hope will rake in the audiences and their sweet, sweet money. Making the market seem more crowded even though most studios have reduced their output, and creating the traffic jam we're going to experience this summer.


  1. Once again you are right, with 3D it looks like Hollywood is going full circle in an attempt to fill seats again. Last time it was because the rise of TV, now it is because of internet piracy and video game consoles. While I am looking forward to some of these summer films, Capt. America and Green Lantern.

    Social - If i want to see a film, I have to go to a mall multiplex, I have to find out ahead to file when the film shows. Not much a problem with the internet but once I get there. If I want concessions, I'll have to pay highway robbery prices. I have to do it way ahead of time if it is a sunday afternoon and the stand is run by one newly hired teen on a busy day.

    Just going to a film these days are just a hassle, long cry from the days of the movie palaces. back in those days movie goers were treated like royalty, now goign to a film feels like being sent into the dungeon.

  2. je pressman12/2/11 3:42 am

    I just saw The King's Speech at a neighborhood theater,which has just six screens. The cineplex in my area has 13 screens and its kind of a deal to arrange to go there. When the 13 screen theater is showing those ,"special fillms,"well you have to plan your movie outing so as to avoid the crowds. Lotsa kids, teenagers and folks who don't seem to kmow not to talk during the film. EESH! So there will be a traffic jam this summer,but I don't see those blockbuster movies anyway because of the subject matter.Those movies will have to get along without moi.