In case you hadn’t noticed, in the last few weeks, Hollywood has been getting more Monday-morning quarterbacking than the Dallas Cowboys. Specifically, summer 2014 supposedly stunk, and now everyone in the press are wagging their fingers at the studios and warning them that their business model is untenable. (If you have any doubt that Hollywood reads its national press, you obviously weren’t paying attention to the Shonda Rhimes/Alessandra Stanley debacle this last weekend.) What do you reckon the studios think when they hear this sort of hectoring?
I want to specifically address Mark Harris’ shame-shamey post-mortem, “Hollywood’s Horrid Summer: Why the Box Office Has Been Worse Than It Looks (and Won’t Get Better Soon)”. Mark Harris occupies a rarefied place – unlike anyone regularly writing about movies for Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, the New York Times, vulture.com, Slate, Salon, Entertainment Weekly, or deadline.com, Harris has written two outstanding, award-winning books that are NOT simply collections of reviews and in fact required years of painstaking research. Harris probably convinced Johnny Depp to make his upcoming Whitey Bulger movie. When I met Dustin Hoffman and asked him about the 1960s, he told me he’d already told Harris everything. Harris is married to (perhaps the greatest living) playwright Tony Kushner, which shouldn’t matter, but we’re talking about Hollywood, so of course it does. My point is that (smart) Hollywood listens to Harris, which is normally great, but that’s also why I get sad when Harris seems to leave out so much.
As always, Harris makes some solid points here, not least of them, “On the bright side, the greater-than-predicted success of Maleficent, Lucy, and The Fault in Our Stars suggests that there might possibly be some money to be made in pursuing a demographic that … what’s it called … not ‘men,’ but … I’m blanking. Forget I mentioned it.” And he’s right, after citing the success of films like The Lego Movie, 22 Jump Street, and Guardians of the Galaxy, to write, “If the movies that are doing the most business these days are those that offer gentle but pointed reminders that most of the movies that surround them are crap, what does that mean for the future of crap?”
My problem is that Harris suggests that “crap” is the studios’ only long-term plan, when in fact it’s a bit more nuanced than that. For one thing, Harris mentions the anniversary re-releases of Ghostbusters and Forrest Gump, as a hectoring warning to the studios that those non-pre-sold, not easily genrefied films earned hundreds of millions more (adjusted, domestic) dollars than anything the studios released this summer. Yet Harris skipped over the reason they bothered to re-release them at all: to test and re-establish their brands. At some points during those endless executive meetings, consultants (who make a lot more than Harris and me) have explained to the big studios that within the Fortune 500, they have by far the worst ratio of products marketed to products maintained; in other words, they spend something like $30 million on brand awareness for a movie like, say, Over the Hedge, and three years later, who even thinks of it? So yes, the studios, who are constantly in search of new revenue streams, (and constantly trying to keep others from taking over the ones they think they should have, as Netflix seemed to do,) are seeking to mobilize and monetize older brands like Ghostbusters and Forrest Gump into video games or new commercials or gif-generators or whatever the kids are into these days.
Second, Harris’ article’s main point is that current theatrical offerings are terrible, or as he puts it, “Summer movie season and fall movie season are now so completely estranged that a seamless flow from one to the other is impossible. A monthlong sigh (the Death Valley that August-to-September has become is the new January!) feels like an almost dogmatic announcement that summer and fall are two different businesses emanating from separate universes.” This sort of perspective is as typical as it is myopic. I’m going to get more into this in a future post, but in a world increasingly run by social media, the Oscar-movie-tail has begun to wag the tentpole-movie dog. Last summer Iron Man 3 hit like a tidal wave, and racked up record grosses, but who was talking about it three months later? It’s now September; when’s the last time anyone mentioned any movie that came out in May or June? But Oscar movies start building buzz now, and don’t really cool off until March; they have a six-month window of tweets, hashtags, related Today show appearances, et cetera. It’s true that Hollywood hasn’t quite figured out how to parlay prestige-films’ low-boil buzz to the volcanic grosses of an Avengers yet (give or take a Hobbit, Hunger Games, or Frozen), but their half-year presence on social media isn’t nothing either…it keeps alive the brand of Hollywood itself, it keeps everything from having to be a tentpole, and it’s not necessarily such bad business…18 months ago, 7 of the 9 Best Picture nominees crossed the domestic $100m threshold, on their way to terrific post-theatrical business. So they’re not separate businesses, but more symbiotic than ever.
But the third and most importantly, Harris overlooks the studios’ specific take-aways from summer 2014. He writes: “Yes, huge overseas grosses pulled a number of domestic shortfallers into very solid profit, but nobody believes that level of international enthusiasm is going to last forever. Historically, audiences in other countries tend to tire of the same stuff that Americans do; they just do it two or three years (or one sequel) later.” Historically, Mark, you might be talking about the 1980s; welcome to the post-Ice Age age, when blockbuster franchises like Transformers do very well again and again internationally…as long as they are very specifically made for overseas audiences. Perhaps this was simply the year when the schism between domestic and foreign audiences became more glaringly apparent.
Agreeing with other doomsayers, Harris writes that if current trends continue, “studios will be in big trouble, because it’s going to take them a dangerously long time to pivot; their commitment to giving audiences more of the same has never been stronger or longer-term.” The biggest problem with Harris’ analysis is that he doesn’t seem to know what the studios’ specific blockbuster strategy is; “more of the same” is only part of it. Take a look at this summer’s films that did gangbusters business outside the United States: Transformers 4, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, How to Train Your Dragon 2, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. If Hollywood learned anything this summer, it’s to make more films like those. And how are those different from, say, Let’s Be Cops? One word: synthespians.
Synthespians? You see, non-Anglophone international audiences see almost everything dubbed into their native language; it’s a convention and a hard habit to break. But even they notice that seeing the person of Eddie Murphy voiced by their local fat white comedian is a bit of a disconnect. When it comes to cartoons, however, or all-CGI characters, there’s far less cognitive dissonance, and people in Indonesia and Turkey and Argentina and wherever can more straightforwardly enjoy their actual favorite (local) celebrities getting plugged into the latest Hollywood spectacle. Every live-action film done this way is like Guardians of the Galaxy was for us; instead of casting Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel, they cast their country’s equivalents of Cooper and Diesel. What a thrill for overseas audiences, because it’s almost like they’re pulling one over on us (imagine the Malaysian George Clooney, whoever he is, playing Optimus Prime and yelling at Shia LaBeouf); what a thrill for their biggest stars, who show up to a recording booth in their sweat pants for three days of dubbing work to earn seven-figure paychecks.
Of course, current blockbusters need more than synthespians; they also seem to require action and blender-like editing and stirring visuals and some degree of star power that is, as of this writing, a little bit hard to quantify. (Yes, Expendables 3, Hercules, and Sex Tape easily doubled their American grosses overseas.) Still, if Volvo and Renault once sold 50% of their new cars in the United States, but then changed their product to make more money overseas, and then succeeded in higher profits (but reduced U.S. share), would the car companies receive this much blandishment? (By the way, that’s pretty much what Volvo and Renault did.) Harris and other scolds need to stop reading boxofficemojo.com on Sunday and start reading rentrak.com, which gives you the entire worldwide picture…after all, that’s the only thing the studios care about. The U.S. numbers are now a sideshow, not to be treated as the main event. And yes, Harris is right that they can’t forget about original content, but they won’t…well, probably not.
So what have we learned? First, Harris got a lot right. Second, the studios are not going to change course because of summer 2014, and not just because the new Pixar and Fast & Furious movies were postponed and next summer already looks awesome. It’s more because their strategy is still kinda working, the same way that Bill Belichick is still making the playoffs. What’s that strategy again? 1) Re-establish their old brands (in that way, Ghostbusters and Forrest Gump are the tip of the iceberg). 2) Rely on free press/tweets throughout the colder half of the year to maintain their names, stars, and especially products that don’t have to each earn $200 million to be profitable. 3) Make films for international audiences, including liberal use of cartoons/CGI creations. For Hollywood, it’s not “go big or go home,” but “go global before you go home.”