When The Sky Falls: Opportunity Amid Hollywood’s Looming Implosion

Christopher Nolan

“Cinema is dead,” or so the frequent pronouncement goes. It seems that each decade brings at least a few grouchy filmmakers to decry the state of cinema, but it’s hard to take them seriously. Lately, though, some of the complaints about Hollywood have gone beyond noted cranks like Peter Greenaway and Jean-Luc Godard and come from more levelheaded thinkers. Major filmmakers like Steven Soderbergh, George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg are having a harder time realizing their visions, and to some, the future of movies looks awfully grim. But too many people have taken Soderbergh and Spielberg’s talks and filtered it through a “the sky is falling!” mentality. Rather, it’s time to consider whether the Hollywood model really is breaking down, and what this might actually mean to filmmakers old and new alike.

In a recent interview with the Independent, cult filmmaker David Lynch said that he thought it was unlikely he’d get a chance to direct another movie anytime soon. “With alternative cinema…you’re fresh out of luck in terms of getting theater space and having people come to see it.” Lynch then said that he felt he’d have a better chance doing what he wanted on television. He’s not alone in thinking this. Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci has said he prefers Breaking Bad and Mad Men to most Hollywood films these days, and the fact that writer/director/actress Lena Dunham has found creative freedom and success on HBO with Girls seems to reinforce the idea that television is the new place for ambitious storytellers. Lynch has had success with television before with his great, if short-lived, TV show Twin Peaks, but it’s sad to think that one of cinema’s greatest surrealists might not have a place on the big screen anymore.

Recently, even the biggest names in Hollywood have talked about the sad state of things in Hollywood. George Lucas bemoaned the fact he had to self-finance his passion project Red Tails, about the Tuskegee Airmen. The film subsequently had trouble finding distribution and failed at the box office. One must take Lucas’s complaints with a grain of salt—films centered around African-Americans sometimes do have trouble at the box office unless someone of Will Smith’s stature is involved, and Red Tails might have also had the problem of not being particularly good.

A more notable cause for alarm: Lucas’s good friend Steven Spielberg had similar trouble financing his Oscar-winning film Lincoln, which he claimed very nearly went to HBO rather than the big screen. This is Steven Spielberg, one of the most successful and gifted storytellers who ever picked up a camera, a two-time Best Director winner whose past historical projects have grossed in the hundreds of millions. Thrown in the most beloved of all American figures and Daniel Day-Lewis, the most acclaimed actor in the world, and it sounds like a surefire hit. The film grossed over $200 million and won two Oscars, but most studios weren’t willing to gamble on a hit, and that’s telling.

In a recent talk at USC, Spielberg and Lucas claimed the film industry was heading for trouble. The two most successful directors in film industry said there will soon be fewer small theaters willing to carry smaller films; that soon big tentpole productions would cost more to get into, as much as $50 or more for certain perks; that as with the 1950s, gimmickry like 3-D is being utilized to lure audiences away from their televisions and back into theaters; that more and more smaller films will have to go to Video On Demand rather than theaters; that studios will not be willing to fund smaller passion projects, preferring to stick to sequels and reboots; and, most notably, that “there’s going to be an implosion where three or four or maybe even a half-dozen megabudget movies are going to go crashing into the ground, and that’s going to change the paradigm.”

Just two fellows

What, exactly, this could mean is up for debate. What’s for sure is that most of the things Spielberg and Lucas have predicted are already true. The past several years have seen more sequels and reboots than ever, ticket prices are already skyrocketing for perks like 3D and IMAX, and many small films are finding more business on VOD than in theaters. Fans of adventurous cinema found reason to celebrate when heiress/producer Megan Ellison funded films from Kathryn Bigelow, Paul Thomas Anderson, Andrew Dominik, John Hillcoat, and others, but the celebrations were premature—where Zero Dark Thirty was a $100 million hit, Dominik’s Killing Them Softly was only a modest success before bad audience word-of-mouth got around and effectively stopped the well-reviewed film. Hillcoat’s Lawless barely made more than its budget, and Anderson’s towering masterpiece The Master didn’t make its money back at all. Ellison has a handful of major productions on the way (David O. Russell’s American Hustle, Spike Jonze’s Her, Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher), but the “fund filmmakers I like” business model might prove untenable, and she’s even taken on Terminator 5 in order to bring in a surefire hit.

As for the big budget meltdowns, there have already been more than a handful of big budget disappointments (After Earth, Battleship), all-out flops (Jack the Giant Slayer, Green Lantern), not-actually-bad films (John Carter), and potentially costly follies (The Lone Ranger in particular). It’s worth pointing out there have been plenty of bombs in Hollywood history, but a string of huge flops could very well threaten to take down a studio.

Perhaps the most articulate complaints about the state of the industry came from Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh, whose recent semi-retirement from film was capped by a state of cinema address/self-described rant. Soderbergh has largely grown grumpier in the days since the financial woes of his 4-hour Che film, but his surly position isn’t without reason. Soderbergh has cited a number of incidents that no doubt contributed to his exhaustion with making films—his being pushed off of a movie for making it too “non-commercial” (Moneyball, which was instead helmed by the skilled but more conventional Bennett Miller), his frustration trying to sell Behind the Candelabra to studios before he had to turn to HBO because the film was “too gay” for Hollywood, and his complaints about producers and financiers tracking numbers. Soderbergh claimed that he was lucky Warner Bros. ignored poor test scores for Magic Mike and released it in the summer as planned, where it was a major hit. On the other hand, his recent film Side Effects tested poorly overseas and, while it doubled its budget, didn’t perform as well as expected. Soderbergh comes up with a number of questions as to why it might not have, but claims studios are not interested in learning what went wrong and instead just move onto the next big release. Meanwhile, Behind the Candelabra reached a wider audience on television than it likely would have in theaters, considering Hollywood’s squeamishness regarding homosexuality. This only adds credence to Soderbergh’s complaints about Hollywood’s risk aversion.

Some of Soderbergh’s objections are less solid: he relates an anecdote about a man on a flight who, while watching a film on his iPad, skipped the narrative elements and went straight for explosions. Soderbergh tries to temper it with a “maybe my daughter and other younger people are different,” but it mostly comes off as a sour “kids these days” harrumph. His return to the tired “difference between cinema and movies” war is similarly irritating. But for the most part, Soderbergh’s arguments are clear, and his complaints of foreign market pandering and studio heads uninterested in original ideas (or even movies themselves) are demonstrably true. Even when original ideas do get funded, it doesn’t guarantee that they’ll be successful. Guillermo Del Toro’s upcoming film Pacific Rim is a big-budget sci-fi film from a talented director, and one might assume that the spectacle factor alone would attract audiences. But tracking right now suggests that the film is going to open behind Adam Sandler’s Grown Ups 2, a terrible-looking sequel to the laziest, shittiest film of Sandler’s career of making lazy, shitty movies. To be fair, Soderbergh himself said that tracking can be wrong, as it was with Magic Mike, but the fact that studios often make major decisions based off of this is a sign that there’s a big problem in a battle between originality and familiarity.

They're the same film

They’re the same film. Just try to question it.

A lot of this speaks to something not only similar to the latter days of Old Hollywood, in which bloated dinosaur productions like Cleopatra were so big they threatened to take studios down, but something neoliberal about Hollywood’s business model. This year saw two films about a secret service agent forced to rescue a president from attack, Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down. Neither were well-received, but they didn’t have to be so long as they made money. They just needed to be horses in a race against the other. They were products to be pumped out, and any real attempt at something unusual would have been too big a risk of losing money. White House Down’s struggle at the box office proves that a neoliberal model in Hollywood, where films are interchangeable, is a bad choice. Yet they forge ahead.

So cinema’s future looks dire, right? Not necessarily. While sequelitis and Hollywood’s general chickenshit attitude toward funding original projects run rampant, there are more than a few heartening success stories to balance out the apocalyptic prophecies. This year has seen a number of independent film success stories: Jeff Nichols’ Mud has grossed $19.5 million against a $10 million budget, and it looks to be a steady earner. Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha, Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring, and Richard Linklater’s exquisite Before Midnight have made $3.2, $4.4, and $4.6 million respectively, and positive word-of-mouth suggests that they’ll have staying power. Meanwhile, the first quarter of the year saw the success of Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines ($35 million against $15 million budget) and enfant terrible Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers ($31 million against a $5 million budget), and while the films drew mixed reviews, their success proves that plenty of moviegoers are looking for something new and exciting in cinema. And while some might complain that Video On Demand might not be the preferred venue for some filmmakers, reality shows smaller films can find wider audiences because of these services.

Of course, many may question whether or not some directors can find the money they need to make the films they want. It’s grown increasingly apparent that crowd-funding services like Kickstarter are viable routes for filmmakers, with successes like Room 237 standing out as a clear example. True, it’s harder to fund films with crowd-funding than music, given the medium’s more collaborative nature, but crowd-funding does make some of the pre-production problems that come with studio financing disappear. Self-distribution is also possible: Shane Carruth self-distributed his brilliant new film Upstream Color, and while the film hasn’t been a runaway success, his release method allowed him to have final cut, to market the strange film his own way rather than try to make it seem more commercial, and to prove that digital filmmaking has opened doors for idiosyncratic directors to realize their own visions. True, it may take some time for these smaller films to catch on but some day a small film without studio funding could make it big and pave the way for others.

And what if the studio system does see major changes in Hollywood? What if some major tentpole films fail? The last time that happened, it was 1969, and the studios, in a panic, started throwing money at any weird movie they thought might find a marginal audience. One of those movies was Easy Rider, and it kicked off a wave of idiosyncratic movies becoming major hits in Hollywood for a decade. Spielberg and Lucas came from this generation, as did Martin Scorsese (still going strong), Francis Ford Coppola, and Terrence Malick. There’s a real possibility that another case of the madmen running the asylum, and one could argue that this is already happening. Rian Johnson’s Brick went from modest indie success story to major cult film, and last year’s Looper was a major hit.

The real example as a possible leader in this new wave for cinema? Christopher Nolan. Soderbergh’s speech may have been mostly pessimistic, but he ended on a positive note, stating that Memento couldn’t find someone willing to buy it when it debuted on the festival circuit in 2000. The financiers, Newmarket Films, wound up distributing the film itself, making $25 million domestically and nearly $40 million worldwide. Nolan has since become the most reliably successful and critically acclaimed director working in Hollywood, be it with a reliably commercial project (the Batman movies) or a more personal project (The Prestige, Inception). True, Hollywood has taken this the wrong way, instead trying their damndest to just produce Nolan-lite films like Now You See Me, but if more directors can break through like Nolan, there’s a real chance for something great to happen in Hollywood.

More than anything, one must take the doom and gloom with a grain of salt. Talented filmmakers may have to push harder for some time before they can realize their visions, but as Carruth, Johnson, Nolan, and other directors have proven, it’s hardly impossible, and the fact that Sundance and other film festivals still provide outlets for smaller films to build buzz is heartening. Soderbergh, Spielberg and company may have been wise to tell aspiring filmmakers of the frustrating current state of things, but there’s another sentiment that needs to be stated: don’t panic.


Max O’Connell

Max O’Connell is an arts journalism graduate student at Syracuse University. When not watching films or reading/writing film criticism, Max enjoys arguing with people. Right at this moment, he is arguing that anyone who thinks E.T. is anything but a masterpiece is a low down dirty dog. He also bears a striking resemblance to one of the guitarists of the now defunct indie band Ponytail. Go read more of his other blatherings about film.

  • Clover

    Really well written

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