Thursday, October 21, 2021

Facing Hard Times is Hollywood Going to Rein in its Film Budgets?

Recent decades have seen film production budgets explode--and with them promotional budgets as well, which have, if anything, grown faster. (Previously a fraction of what it cost to make a movie, promotional budgets are now comparable to the production budgets which swelled in size so much.)

What led to those burgeoning costs? There is, of course, Hollywood's famously wastefulness with money, from the pre-production process forward. There is the ever greater reliance on intellectual properties, which come with big bills (not least, in legal fees). There is the explosion of the compensation for people bringing Big Names to a project. (All of this, you will notice, has nothing to do with the actual film production process.) And there is the fact that Hollywood has become so reliant on lavishly staged action films.

In considering the expense those projects involved one has to consider that Hollywood might lay out only a small fraction of the advertised budget. The figures may be overstated for tax purposes, for example, or to diminish the portion of the profit to be shared by others to whom the studio may have commitments. (Remember how Forrest Gump, after almost $700 million banked, had officially not yet turned a profit?) And of course, there is the place of product placement, and government subsidy (with Heineken paying $45 million for Bond to drink its beer in Skyfall, and Mexican officials offering a $20 million tax credit for the makers of Spectre to shoot the pre-credits scene the way they wanted). And while there is a tendency to emphasize the highly publicized theatrical earnings, much of the money comes from less publicized revenue streams, like video, TV rights and merchandising (which easily turn flops into profitable ventures).

Still, it is hard to picture the blockbusters we now take for granted being made without the expectation of billion dollar grosses. And the pandemic has seen such grosses become harder to earn, when they were already getting tougher to score in an age of ever-multiplying entertainment options and intensifying media noise (hence those aggressive promotional budgets). While I have certainly underestimated how long the studios can keep selling superhero movies, audience fatigue with the same themes, the same franchises, seems bound to set in eventually. Meanwhile the Chinese market on which Hollywood has set such hopes has proven a harder one than is generally admitted with movies like Crazy Rich Asians, the live-action Mulan and the latest installments of the Star Wars failing to take; with rising great power tensions perhaps forcing American filmmakers to be more cautious; with the last two entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which usually does pretty well in China, failing to even get into Chinese theaters (likely because of such politics), potentially costing each of those productions hundreds of millions of badly needed dollars. (Pre-pandemic Black Widow and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings would each have had a good shot at the billion dollar club. As it is the two combined have not even pulled in $800 million so far, which can hardly be making Disney happy--any more than the sputtering out of their once grand ambitions with Star Wars have.)

One possible response is Hollywood's spending its money more carefully. I am not convinced it can become much less wasteful, because its practice is so entrenched, but it may be that it will give us shorter running times and tone down the overfamiliar bombast in its action movies--while, perhaps, opening the door at least a little wider to creativity in its handling of the form, giving us something at least a little fresher than the stultifying sameness of recent years. Still, modest as such modifications sound I find myself thinking they are far beyond the pack which humiliates itself so thoroughly when its reality gets a little media exposure--with their inability and unwillingness to adapt the greater because there is, in the press as elsewhere, never a shortage of sycophants telling them they are all wonderful geniuses and that everything is just fine, the same as they do with the powerful in every area of life.

Friday, October 8, 2021

Superhero Films, James Bond and the Avoidance of Franchise Fatigue

As those who have followed the scene are well aware the boom in superhero films is about two decades old, certainly if one goes by the then-surprising success of Bryan Singer's first X-Men film in the summer of 2000. Naturally there has been considerable speculation about whether the audience is getting tired of superheroes--on which I have been getting my two cents for at least a decade now, with a piece by Brandon Katz in the Observer getting me thinking about it again, the more in as it cited former vice chairman of the motion picture group at Paramount Pictures Barr London's remark that "Every franchise with the exception of James Bond gets people tired."

The fact that almost six decades later the latest Bond movie looks like a hit--and indeed, a hit to which some are looking as at the very least a sign of the salvation of the whole industry--would seem to confirm London's assessment of the situation. Still, I would argue that Bond has been no exception to the pattern--that a glance at his long history shows that, yes, it, too, has experienced fatigue over the years.

The enthusiasm for the franchise may be said to have peaked with Thunderball, with "Bondmania" starting to pass not too long after. You Only Live Twice cost more and, if still a huge hit by any measure, took in a lot less money. On Her Majesty's Secret Service was a comparative letdown, after which The Man with the Golden Gun distinctly underperformed--while the increasing tendency to parody was, if not necessarily a barrier to decent earnings, not looked on happily by all, and many quick to declare the series weary, and the fans if not the mass market weary with it, though that too followed. The '80s were a time of declining grosses in an increasingly crowded market, with A View to a Kill seen as at the least an artistic low point (to say nothing of uncompetitive with the likes of Rambo that same summer), while Licence to Kill proved a particular disappointment in the U.S., contributing to the fact that there was not another Bond film in theaters for six and a half long years.

All of this was in spite of the fact that big-budget action movies were comparatively few until the '80s (by which time the franchise really was showing signs of fatigue), and that flamboyantly high-living, globetrotting spy-fi did not even begin to become a Hollywood staple for another decade after that (with True Lies, Mission: Impossible, etc.). It was also in spite of the fact that the series' runners went to enormous lengths to keep audiences, shamelessly seizing on any and every fashionable trend, no matter how questionable (Blaxploitation, Star Wars), while constantly shifting tone and feel (more or less serious, more or less nostalgic or novel), and that the conditions were such that it was able to get away with this strategy (at least so far as the general audience was concerned) because, again, the action movie market was not so brutally competitive as it has since become.

In short, the makers of the Bond movies had things comparatively easy for most of the franchise's history, while more recently it has probably helped that Hollywood puts out a good deal less spy-fi than it does superhero films, and that the output of Bond films has been limited. (Since 1989 we have had a grand total of only nine Bond films, and since 2002 just five of them--one every four years, on average.)

The superhero film has no such advantage today--and I would argue that this is less because of anything really special about it than the fact that the makers of the more successful such movies have gone to such lengths to fight off fatigue. There is the way in which Marvel got audiences wrapped up in a multimedia "Cinematic Universe." There has been the late shift to edgier, antiheroic, often R-rated material (with Logan and Venom and above all Deadpool). And there has been the leveraging of cultural politics (with Wonder Woman, with Black Panther, with Captain Marvel). I myself have not been particularly impressed with the results as anything but "more of the same," really, while not everyone found their tweaks to the familiar to their liking, myself included. (I found Deadpool's metafictional aspects and flippancy and edgelordism all awfully stale stuff, while Wonder Woman was, for all its woke pretensions, awfully conventional and nationalistic in its treatment of World War I, among other things, etc..) But they did get people into theaters--for a while. The approach may still be working, to go by the earnings of Black Widow and Shang-Chi and Venom 2 (so far), perhaps helped by the long stretch in which people have been going to theaters less and so many big movies of the type have had their releases bumped, audiences are feeling less saturated, less worn out, than they would have felt at the same point had things proceeded normally. Still, I suspect that before much longer the industry will have to think up something else if it is to keep the boom from going bust.

Revisiting Umberto Eco's "The Myth of the Superhero"

The idea of the hero is, I suppose, found in just about every culture in one form or another, and with it superheroes in the broad sense of people whose abilities and achievements were in some way more than merely human. Yet the idea of the superhero as we know it, the DC/Marvel Comics-type superhero--the superhero with a colorful public persona apart from their private identity, existent not in some mythic, settled past but as a figure whose adventures are ongoing in the present day, etc.--is more distinctly American (if, in a global age in which American pop culture is received everywhere, enjoyed everywhere, as the box office receipts demonstrate).

In considering that possibility I find myself thinking of Umberto Eco's essay "The Myth of Superman." The piece offers a great many ideas on the subject, some of which seem to me more plausible, others less so. Perhaps the most significant is his idea that the superhero is a response to the experience people have in modern times of being powerless, and feeling that they are mediocre, and hoping that somehow they will transcend their ordinary human limitations to redeem that.

Of course, individual powerlessness, and the sense of being a mediocrity, are unpleasant features of human social life generally for the vast majority of people, given the scale and complexity of that life, the constraints on us and the demands on us, the standards by which we judge ourselves in an age of mass media, and there is nothing uniquely American about them. But all the same I wonder if the pain of them is felt as severely everywhere--if being powerless and "mediocre" is experienced as so much of a humiliating defeat as in a society which makes so much of the rhetoric of freedom and choice and empowerment, which incessantly tells its members that they and no one else are in control of their lives; as in a society so given to the worship of the powerful individual, and enthralled with their exercise of their power for even the stupidest and most selfish ends; as in a society which so fervently sings the ideal of meritocracy, and its claim to actually living by it; as in a society where life is lived on "winner take all" terms; and in light of all of the foregoing, as in a society where the "losers," left with that much less than they otherwise might be, are also told every moment of every day that they have absolutely no one to blame but themselves for their unhappiness.

I wonder, too, if the response to that unhappiness with fantasies of somehow going from "zero to hero," from powerless mediocrity to super-empowered superlativeness, is so great in a society where the value system is less vehement about this particular brand of "loser-humiliating" individualism; where people are less inclined to coping, or failing to cope, with their frustrations and miseries in intensely private ways.

And I wonder if it is not relevant that all this took off as it did in recent decades, in a neoliberal, neoconservative era where those deemed losers are told to not dream of other worlds.

Sunday, October 3, 2021

The Reading We Don't Do in School

I have previously had occasion to mention on this blog my reading Graham Greene's brief but valuable essay about "our literary friends"--by which Greene meant those writers who may not "do us credit" in the eyes of the world but whom we truly enjoyed reading when we were young.

Considering the eternal debate about whether or not literacy is declining, it seems to me that the fact that fewer young people have such friends is probably part of the problem. We talk a great deal about how the schools may be failing in their educational mission (in part because their role is the more obvious, in part because teacher-bashing and school-bashing serves the agenda of the "privatize everything" crowd), but overlook how the schools never carried the whole burden. If people on average read better in the past than they do now, this was at least partly because they did more free reading, and likely got more than is appreciated out of material that, to the eyes of the skeptical middlebrow, looked unpromising.

Certainly looking back I think reading such fiction helped me in that way. My reading, admittedly, was not wholly unvaried, but as you may recall John le Carré was way too "literary" for me. (Indeed, even Ian Fleming was too literary for me in those days.) Rather what I went for were the jet-setting shoot 'em up spy novels, the military techno-thrillers, the big summertime blockbusters on paper generally. I inclined, in particular, to Robert Ludlum, Clive Cussler, Tom Clancy (and Larry Bond, and Dale Brown, and Eric Van Lustbader, etcetera, etcetera).

Were the books those authors produced "great literature?" No, not by the standards of "the ancients," or the Medievals, or Franco-Jamesian realism, or Zolaesque naturalism, or Modernism or postmodernism or any other "high cultural" standard with which I am familiar. Nevertheless, taking up those books I was not just practicing my reading comprehension skills, but doing so on material that still had me coping with long, information-heavy, sometimes complexly and intricately structured and detailed narratives (lots of subplots, lots of narrative threads, lots of viewpoint characters). Material that, because of its subject matter, made demands on, and sometimes expanded, my vocabulary and my general knowledge. Material that, while not doing so in the more artistically striking ways, or for the sake of exploring important or understanding of lived life, demanded close attention, and patience, and a readiness to puzzle things out here and there (if only for the sake of following what was going on in some action sequence).

I might add that as one who not only enjoyed reading such fiction but was already aspiring to write it I was more attentive to the books than most. Where the conventionally "dutiful" student of creative writing spends their time trying to write "beautiful" sentences, I went so far as to outline many of these books in detail, trying to work out how one development led to the next, how one scene led to the next; how one fleshed out a narrative so that what might have been boiled down into a summary of a few pages was a whole book; how they distinguished between what was worth conveying and not worth conveying to the reader, and how best it might be conveyed so that the reader would be able to follow along, and preferably, enthusiastic about doing so.

Soon enough my interests as reader and writer changed, and I spent less time with those friends than I did before. But looking back I can see that it was a training nonetheless, a broader one than even that to which I was aspiring as a would-be novelist.

21st Century Hollywood: A Cheat Sheet

I doubt anyone would say that the twenty-first century has been Hollywood's most glorious era artistically. It did not and arguably could not see the fundamental innovation of the era of D.W. Griffith and Charlie Chaplin. It was not the "golden age of movies" in which the MGM lion roared, or the scene of the kind of innovative, challenging work produced by the "New Hollywood" of the 1970s. Still, if the era could seem one of stagnation artistically, the business has certainly seen a great deal of change, in cases extending prior trends (the long-increasing competition from the small screen and import of the foreign box office, the rise of "high concept" in the 1970s, for example, or the resurgence of big-screen animation in the 1990s), in others reflecting more fundamental technological change (as the Internet's development permitted sufficiently convenient streaming of kind to make this preferable to the purchase or rental of physical media--one thing about which Ray Kurzweil was right). Eight developments seem to stand out above all:

1. The rise of China. (The foreign markets have always been important--as anyone familiar with Hollywood's sheer groveling before Nazi Germany in the '30s recalls--but never has a single foreign market had so much dollars-and-cents significance.)

2. The ascent of TV rather than the feature film as the scene for such drama as we get in this day and age (in the new "golden age of television").

3. The rise and fall of DVD--the latter, as yet another technology, the streaming of content, edged it out the way it had edged out the video cassette (e.g. Netflix went from mailing us discs to delivering content straight to our devices).

4. The collapse of the (movie) star system. (People went to the movies to see franchises, not stars.)

5. The intensification of franchising. This extended, of course, to
a. The haste we saw in the rebooting of recently exploited properties (a mere five years later after Spiderman 3 we had Spiderman's origin story all over again in The Amazing Spider-man); and
b. The development of shared universes (like Marvel achieved, and like Warner tried to have with DC, and Disney tried to have with Star Wars).

6. The demise of the mid-budget movie, decline of standalone movies of all types, and for that matter, anything that did not lend itself to an internationally appealing, colossally merchandisable franchise. (Goodbye, romantic comedy. Goodbye adult drama, no matter how much the suck-ups in the entertainment press sneer at and straw man those who say those kinds of movies "don't get made anymore.")

7. The increasing dominance of the market by exactly two genres, precisely because they lend themselves so well to the creation of internationally appealing, colossally merchandisable franchises--action-adventure (in the main big-budget science fiction and fantasy CGI-fests, with a sprinkling of spy-fi), and big, usually musical comedy-oriented family animated features (to the point that they would account for at least eight of the top ten movies of the year).

8.The rise of Disney from not even being one of the "majors" to being king of Hollywood (precisely because no one was more shameless about playing by these rules).

Altogether it really does seem quite extraordinary--with the extent to which this was the case underscored by how little many of the participants understood it. (Certainly Ben Fritz gives the impression that Sony CEO Amy Pascal did not "get it" until very late, and Sony suffered for it.) Considering it all I find myself wondering what the next twenty years might bring--and find myself not coming up with much, precisely because in all of the above I get the sense that the history of the "movie as we know it" is drawing to a close.

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