Thursday, 16 October 2014

Work In Progress: Whither Blockbusters?

Here's another excerpt from my epic work in progress about show business. Today's topic will be blockbusters. Where they came from and why they're dominating…

Studios love blockbusters, those big, expensive, bombastic, movies that offer lots of explosions and the minimum of story. The studios like them so much they’re making fewer and fewer of every other kind of movie, and directing those resources to the making of blockbuster.

Well, it’s a long and complicated story that has to begin with a little history lesson…

One thing you'll learn if you study the box-office records of Hollywood before the 1970s you'll realize that there were very few hits in the way we view a hit movie these days. As I explained earlier, a movie needs to make at least two to three times its production budget to break even, and everything above that might be profit if the studio accountants let it. In the old days of the studio system the major studios worked on the mindset that as long as they made enough films that turned a profit, and hopefully one or two real "hits" they'd be able to not only stay in business, but to pay profit dividends to their investors and partners. They were a lot like a factory, hoping to profit through sheer volume.
 Now not all movies were made equally, there used to be "A-Pictures," and "B-Pictures."
The A-Picture in the Golden Age was the blockbuster of its day. I'm talking big budgets, big stars, top name directors, writers, and a grand and epic story-line. A-Pictures were made for two reasons, reason number one: the studios wanted to make money by giving the audience eye-popping spectacles, with a "cast of thousands." Reason number two was a desire for prestige, awards, and critical acclaim. When these two reasons worked well together, they produce classic movies like Ben Hur (1959), when the don't work well together, they create massive boondoggles that lose multiple fortunes like Raintree County (1957).
Now B-Movies had only one reason to exist, and that was to make money, and to do it quickly. Studios needed to fill slots in theatres, but they couldn't afford to only make A-Pictures, MGM often tried but failed, so they needed something affordable to fill those slots. Enter the B-Movie.
Nowadays the B-Movie is used as a all purpose brand for any movie considered "cheap" or even "disreputable," but that's not exactly true. In their day, B-Movies were a training ground for new talent, and because of their low cost, they didn't attract much interference from the studio's front office like the grand A-Pictures, so that new talent could experiment with new techniques of narrative, camerawork, editing, and anything else to set themselves apart from the pack. That's not saying that all B-Movies were wonderful, they weren't. In fact, many were just mass produced dreck made by people lacking talent, ambition and imagination.
However, when someone with talent, ambition, and imagination made a B-Picture they not only outstripped the other B-Movies, but showed up quite a few of the A-Pictures as well. John Ford's The Informer (1935), was a relatively low budget B-Movie from the RKO Studio that went on to be a box-office hit, and win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Casablanca, directed by Michael Curtiz, started out as a hurriedly slapped together B-Picture, derived from an unfinished play simply to fill an empty slot in the Warner Brothers release schedule that had committed the cardinal sin of going way over budget due to its ongoing script problems. Yet it too went on to massive commercial, critical success, and won an Academy Award for Best Picture.
So being an A-Picture wasn't a guarantee of quality the same way being a B-Movie wasn't a guarantee of poor workmanship.
Things began to change in the late 1940s, legal actions by the federal government forced the major studios to get out of the theatre business, and television arrived and spread like wildfire across the pop culture landscape. This marked the end of the studio B-Movie, because the major companies no longer needed to fill the schedules of the newly independent theatres with product so they began to phase out B-Movies, leaving space open for a mini-boom of independent producers to fill the gaps. 
And then there was television.
The studios initially opposed getting involved in television, viewing it as a threat to their business, poaching both viewers and talent from the movies, and the movie moguls fought it tooth and nail. Television brought entertainment into people's living rooms pretty much all day, every day, and with a new alternative, movie ticket sales slumped. However, that entertainment was black and white, grainy, and shown on relatively small 12 inch screens. Hollywood saw its salvation in the vivid hues of Technicolor, and in new gimmicks, some of them short lived, like 3D, and others that were more successful, like Cinemascope, VistaVision, and Cinerama.
3D movies used special glasses to create the illusion of things leaping off the screen, and is probably best remembered for a string of science-fiction and horror films, and really didn't have much impact in the business as a whole. The more successful gimmicks, like Cinemascope and VistaVision were new ways of filming the movies for a more "big-screen" look. You see, human eyes don't see things in the roughly squarish shape of an old fashioned movie or TV screen, the average human field of vision is much wider, and more rectangular than that. These new processes were designed to fill the entire field of vision with big, brightly coloured images. These new processes though were expensive at first, so were reserved for big budget features designed to offer audiences the grand spectacle they couldn't get from television.
Now while the films got more expensive, the motivation behind their making really hadn't changed much. The studios were looking for the film to earn enough to pay for the next movie, and get a dividend for investors. While they did a jaunty little happy dance in the studio cafeteria if a movie became a record breaking smash, they didn't delude themselves into expecting every film to perform that way. Sadly, fewer and fewer films became record breaking smashes, and thanks to rising costs, and dwindling audiences, that modest profit margin they hoped for became smaller and smaller, if they saw anything at all.
That all began to change in the 1960s....

When the studios phased out producing their own B-Movies in the late 1940s and early 1950s it left a huge gap in the movie market. Theatre owners still needed films to show, but the major studios weren't producing anywhere near enough to fill their schedule. This opening was filled by a group of small, hungry companies, the most famous being American International Pictures, and its star director/producer Roger Corman.
They made films aimed at the emerging teen movie market that were made quickly, cheaply, and above all had a hook. A hook is that precious something that catches the eye, and hopefully puts a bum in the theatre seat, or a car in the drive-in. In fact Samuel Z. Arkoff, one of the founding partners of AIP even composed what he called the A.R.K.O.F.F. Formula for finding this hook:
A FOR ACTION- Lots of excitement and drama.
R FOR REVOLUTION- A controversial theme, subject, or idea to make the film stand out from the others.
K FOR KILLING- A bit of violence, not too much, just enough to keep things interesting and the stakes nice and high.
O FOR ORATORY- Memorable, quotable, and colourful dialogue.
F FOR FANTASY- Something to appeal to the imaginations of the audience, like space travel, high speed auto-racing, or some other form of wish fulfillment liberally peppered with...
F FOR FORNICATION- No, he wasn't making "porn" it was his colourful way of asking for a little sex appeal to be included into every movie.
AIP's marketing department’s research determined that the key to winning the maximum audience at that time was to target the 19 year old American male. To do this AIP asked teenagers across the country what they wanted to see in a movie. Often the company would take this information, come up with a title, a poster, some casting ideas, and then hire a writer and a director to come up with a story to fit their little package and make it on a small budget.
You could say that once they had their hook, they exploited it, and exploitation cinema, long a disreputable near underground phenomena, had entered not only the mainstream, but its golden age.
Throughout the 50s and 60s the majors made fewer, but bigger films, while the independents kept the drive ins and theatres humming with a steady stream of low budget flicks that were capable of responding quickly to rapidly changing trends. Occasionally the studios would try to imitate these smaller producers, but those attempts usually failed since where the independents could get a film written, shot, and in theatres, in a matter of weeks, it took a major studio months just to decide on a script, if they were lucky.
During the 1960s producer-director Roger Corman started to expand his empire, producing more films quicker, cheaper, and crazier than anyone else. He also started hiring young hungry students and recent graduates from new film schools to provide cheap labour, youthful energy, and talent. In the never-ending hunt for novelty they started looking for new twists, any new twists, to make their films more interesting. These students were eager to work for Corman, partly because most of them were fans, and partly because jobs with the mainstream companies were denied them.
The studios started to clue into the success being had at American International, and Corman's own New World company, and since many of the majors were slouching toward bankruptcy, they started opening their doors to the new talent. One of the first to cross over was Francis Ford Coppola, who had apprenticed with Corman, but his art-house film The Rain People dried up at the box-office, and his first attempt at a mainstream Hollywood film, a now mostly forgotten musical called Finian's Rainbow, couldn't sing and dance to success either. However, actor turned studio executive Robert Evans at Paramount had a situation that he thought only Coppola could solve.
Paramount was slowly recovering from some very hard times, it had been taken over by the Gulf + Western conglomerate, but it needed to get back in the black, and fast, or face having the company broken up, and the pieces sold off. Earlier Evans had picked up the rights to a then unpublished novel called The Godfather by Mario Puzo, the book went on to become a massive best-seller, and the pressure was on to make a movie version, but there was a problem. It had been years, perhaps decades, since a major studio produced a movie about the mafia and gangsters that made any money. Evans figured he had to take a different tack, have a movie about Italian-Americans, be made by an Italian American, and the one Italian American filmmaker within Paramount's price range was Francis Coppola.
Long story short, The Godfather became a huge money-maker, opening doors for literally dozens of graduates of not only film schools, but Corman's apprenticeship program as well. These filmmakers wanted to make the sort of films they watched on late night TV reruns, but bigger, better, and with a certain artistic flair influenced as much by European art cinema as Roger Corman. Even small films became big events, like the low-budget coming of age nostalgia flick American Graffiti becoming a monster hit, and paving the way for its young director George Lucas to have a crack at making another film, called Star Wars. Steven Spielberg, who oddly enough didn't study film in university or Corman's company, segued from television and a small Goldie Hawn movie to turn a successful pot-boiler novel about a man-eating shark into Jaws, the movie franchise that emptied beaches for a good chunk of the late 70s and early 80s.
Others soon followed, and their films didn't just make money, they made a lot of money. The studios escaped from the jaws of bankruptcy, and soon became the base of the modern media mega-conglomerates we all know and love today. Now of course these movies couldn't be called "B-Pictures" since they pretty much defined the "A-Picture" in both budget and star power, and they really wanted to take them away from their roots in exploitation cinema, which still had the scent of the disreputable to it, so a new term had to be coined. 
That term was "High Concept."
A high concept picture was one with something about it that can be condensed into a sentence that attracts the audience's attention. It could be a comic book superhero, a crazy action plot, roots in a best-selling book, a classic TV show, or anything else that might pique someone's interest quickly. The only real difference between that and exploitation cinema was essentially budget, but don't say that out loud, you might hurt their feelings.

Okay, now that you know some of the history behind blockbusters, now you get to know why the major studios are becoming so dependent on them. Knowing the history is important, because it all boils down to a case of history repeating itself.

Facing competition from the internet, an expanded TV universe, and the economic crisis of 2008-2009, the major studios are repeating the tactics of the 1950s and 1960s that almost brought them to ruin. They're slashing their production slates down to essentially big budget, all-star, high-concept flicks, smaller budget, overly earnest Oscar-bait, and dropping most of everything in between. The modest budget thrillers, adventures, mysteries, cop action movies, and comedies (except those involving Judd Apatow which are getting more expensive/indulgent every day) are being whittled away by the studios. So unless you can guarantee at least a $100 million first week box-office take, or some Oscar nominations, you can pretty much forget landing a deal.
Now their are two forces behind this contraction, one is corporate, one is 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 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 merger. 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 box-office records, they don't even want to look at it.
Then you have the theatre owners.
Remember, they need some sort of guarantee that people will be showing up, buying tickets to cover their nut, and buying snacks to cover their profits, especially if any given movie is showing on between 2,000-3,000 screens. The only guarantee a film’s distributor can give that they’re spending tens of millions of dollars to market that movies to get those bums in seats.
Then there are the international audiences.
There are those who would like to think that the USA is the reason why most studio films are big, bombastic, and more often than not, stupider than a brick. The domestic intelligentsia will point to the foreign flicks playing at the local art-house cinema and declare that those films reveal the cultural superiority of their nations of origin.
Of course they neglect to mention that the country of origin airs prime time game shows where women flash their boobs to win prizes. You see, the foreign films we get are mostly the “art” movies of the other countries. The real big money pictures in these markets are usually loaded with either loud explosions, low brow slapstick humour that makes Chris Farley look subtle, objectified women, and simplistic stories that won’t lose anything in translation.
In the eyes of these international audiences, Hollywood blockbusters are the height of sophisticated entertainment.
Now let’s look at the other reason…
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 neighbourhood 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 for tickets for each person to get into the theatre to see the movie, then there's paying for the popcorn, sodas, and other snackables. What was once something that could be done almost entirely on a whim, is now a major expedition that requires major planning and organization 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.

And that's why studios would rather only make blockbusters these days.

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