When all you can see through is the rear view mirror

Mark Harris has a great piece at Grantland on how Hollywood passed an inflection point of no return towards the franchise strategy in 2014. Whether or not this past year was the really the tipping point, using Michael Keaton's character's struggle in Birdman as a metaphor for the Hollywood studio dilemma was a pleasingly form-fitting metaphor.

It's worth perusing the two images Harris posted as a sobering, if not terrifying, preview of what's to come.

I believe that what studios see when they look at the bumper-to-bumper barricade of a 2015–20 lineup they’ve built is a sense of security — a feeling that they have gotten their ducks in a row. But these lists, with their tremulous certainty that there is safety in numbers, especially when numbers come at the end of a title, represent something else as well: rigidity and fear. If you asked a bunch of executives without a creative bone in their bodies to craft a movie lineup for which the primary goal is to prevent failure, this is exactly what the defensive result would look like. It’s a bulwark that has been constructed using only those tools with which they feel comfortable — spreadsheets, P&L statements, demographic studies, risk-avoidance principles, and a calendar. There is no evident love of movies in this lineup, or even just joy in creative risk. Only a dread of losing.

At this point, optimists usually say lighten up, because, after all, good movies always find a way to get through. But here’s the thing: They don’t. The evidence that good movies survive is the fact that every year brings good movies, which is a bit like saying that climate change is a hoax because it’s nice out today. Yes, good movies sprout up, inevitably, in the cracks and seams between the tectonic plates on which all of these franchises stay balanced, and we are reassured of their hardiness. But we don’t see what we don’t see; we don’t see the effort, or the cost of the effort, or the movies of which we’re deprived because of the cost of the effort. Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice may have come from a studio, but it still required a substantial chunk of outside financing, and at $35 million, it’s not even that expensive. No studio could find the $8.5 million it cost Dan Gilroy to make NightcrawlerBirdman cost a mere $18 million and still had to scrape that together at the last minute. Imagine American movie culture for the last few years without Her or Foxcatcher or American Hustle or The Master or Zero Dark Thirty and it suddenly looks markedly more frail — and those movies exist only because of the fairy godmothership of independent producer Megan Ellison. The grace of billionaires is not a great business model on which to hang the hopes of an art form.

What we are seeing from the major studios is mono-strategy: cloning (analogous to what the tech world calls fast following). The two charts above are different but related; both work on the idea that it's cheaper and lower risk to market something which already has existing mindshare than to innovate from scratch.

This strategy is even more attractive to the risk-averse when budgets for such blockbusters require a heavy dose of international box office revenues (especially from China) to turn a profit. Genre films, especially of the action and superhero variety, travel more easily across international cultural palates because of their universal story elements. A culturally specific movie just doesn't translate as easily, and so a global audience squeezes movies into one-size-fits-all, off-the-shelf stories.

That is a deceptively dangerous game, especially considering all the movies above will compete not just with other forms of entertainment for human attention but each other as well. I believe one of the big six Hollywood movie studios (Sony, Warner Bros, Disney, Universal, Fox, Paramount) is going to go under or be acquired in the next five years, and it will be because more than one of their mega-budget movie bets above will flop in the same year.

I have not lost all faith for smart movies for grownups, but we may suffer through a dark period for many years while alternative models and platforms for financing, production, and distribution of such cultural fare arise. The studio playbook when it comes to movies really doesn't contain much more than variants of one offensive scheme, let's call it the “shock and awe method of advertising saturation to propel a movie through the traditional windowing sequence.” It's a blunt hammer, one that is ill-suited to great movies like The Immigrant that call for a scalpel.