TCS Daily


The Era of Big Cinema Is Over

By Edward B. Driscoll - October 26, 2006 12:00 AM

One of the most iconic moments in cinema occurs in 1950's Sunset Boulevard, when William Holden says, "Hey, you're Norma Desmond... you used to be big!" And Gloria Swanson replies, "I AM big -- it's the pictures that got small!"

Norma would be astonished at just how much smaller the pictures would become half a century later. Shortly after the 2006 Oscar Awards Ceremony, George Lucas, who produced six Star Wars movies, self-funding a large portion of their sequels' expensive budgets with his own money, said that he now believes the pendulum has swung towards movies far cheaper than the town's typical $100-million-plus movie budgets. In March, he said that the film industry should concentrate on movies in the $15 million range. More recently, in an October interview in Variety, Lucas revised that figure further downward:

[Lucas] gave $175 million -- $100 million for endowment and $75 million for buildings -- to his alma mater [USC]. But he said that kind of money is too much to put into a film.

Spending $100 million on production costs and another $100 million on [prints and advertising] makes no sense, he said.

"For that same $200 million I can make 50-60 two-hour movies. That's 120 hours as opposed to two hours. In the future market, that's where it's going to land, because it's going to be all pay-per-view and downloadable.

That's an average of $4 million per picture. If Lucas is serious, and representative of other Hollywood moguls (and Martin Scorsese at least sounds like he's in agreement), then The Era Of Big Cinema is over—or at least gone on life support.

Hollywood's Original Freefall

To understand why, it helps to look at another period in which movie going dropped precipitously, the late 1960s and 1970s. As a company town, Hollywood has always tilted to some extent or another to the left, but the studio heads who ran it from the 1930s through the 1950s understood that its product must resonate with the American public as a whole to make money, regardless of their filmmakers' personal politics. Or as Sam Goldwyn is frequently attributed as saying, "Pictures are for entertainment, messages should be delivered by Western Union".

For Hollywood, the late 1960s began to mark a retreat from that philosophy. In a Wall Street Journal piece a few years ago, Michael Medved used the mid-1960s transition from the Hays Office, which acted as an industry-wide censor, to the G/PG/R/X ratings system we now take for granted, as being, effectively, the end of the golden age of movies. And, as Medved notes, that change influenced not just Hollywood's content, but its box office returns as well. Medved writes that in 1965, "44 million Americans went out to the movies every week. A mere four years later, that number had collapsed to 17.5 million":

In 1966, Mr. Valenti's Motion Picture Association of America quietly dropped its enforcement of the restrictive old Production Code that Hollywood studios had imposed on themselves since 1930. Then, on Nov. 1, 1968, Mr. Valenti introduced the "voluntary rating system" that continues in force to this day. As he proudly declared in his farewell address to the industry on March 23 of this year: "The rating system freed the screen, allowing movie-makers to tell their stories as they choose to tell them." That new freedom allowed the profligate use of obscene language strictly banned under the Production Code, the inclusion of graphic sex scenes along with near total nudity and, more vivid, sadistic violence than previously permitted in Hollywood movies.

The resulting changes in the industry showed up with startling clarity at the Academy Awards. In 1965, with the Production Code still in force, "The Sound of Music" won Best Picture of the Year; in 1969, under the new rating system, an X-rated offering about a homeless male hustler, "Midnight Cowboy," earned the Oscar as the year's finest film. Most critics, then as now, welcomed the aesthetic shift and hailed the fresh latitude in cinematic expression, but the audience voted with its feet.

And while there were numerous films made in the 1970s that are now justifiably viewed as classics, for the most part, those films were nowhere near as profitable as the great movies of the past. To make money again, Hollywood needed two men named Spielberg and Lucas to return the industry to escapist, popcorn fare.

The result was a series of big budget, enjoyable, if often mindless, action-filled movies, typically released in the summer when kids were on vacation, which allowed Hollywood to stay profitable, beginning with Spielberg's Jaws in 1975, and Lucas's first Star Wars movie in 1977. That streak continued all the way through this year's Pirates of the Caribbean sequel, which Chris Anderson, the author of The Long Tail credits with single-handedly preventing yet another year of shrinking ticket sales.

But along the way, Hollywood's budgets began to snowball: Star Wars cost $9.5 million to produce, which was fairly typical for a big-budget 1970s film. By the 1990s, budgets grew as high as $200 million, beginning with Titanic. Lucas's own recent trilogy of Star Wars "prequels" each ran in the $125 million range, which is Hollywood's definition of cost-effective. Warner Brothers' Superman Returns cost a whopping $270 million, thus ensuring that its hefty $200 million domestic box office gross would become a studio loss.

Prior to the 1970s, Hollywood aimed its movies at a mass culture. But by the late 1970s, the first signs of political correctness began to increasingly separate movie makers from their audience, beginning perhaps most visibly with Warren Beatty's Reds in 1981. But even during that decade, Hollywood balanced films such as Platoon and Salvador with Rambo and Top Gun. And it was pretty clear that the characters played by Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Harrison Ford and Bruce Willis were on the side of Truth, Justice and The American Way.

Jump cut to this past summer, where that Superman movie that Warner Brothers was counting on to kick-start their perennial superhero franchise instead became infamous for having Perry White utter "truth, justice and all that other stuff", because the film's writers were ashamed of, well, the American way.

This wasn't all that new a development—even before 9/11, Michael Bay's Pearl Harbor was chided for its revisionist history and moral equivalence. But after 9/11, Hollywood's PC freefall merely accelerated, causing further alienation from the industry's domestic audience. The 2006 Academy Awards ceremony was something of a watershed. As blogger Charlie Richards noted this past February, "it's a big year for films nobody will see", to the point where March of the Penguins, which won for best documentary, made more money than any of the Best Picture Nominees. And as author and blogger John Scalzi wrote at the time, "When Hollywood's best films can't compete with chilled, aquatic birds, there's something going on."

Just Another Niche Market

What was going on was that Hollywood had alienated a wide swatch of its audience-perhaps to the point where relations are irreparable. Like television networks, the two mediums once shared a monopoly on viewers. But these days, technology such as videogames and DVDs, hundreds of channels of satellite TV, the "Long Tail" of the Internet, and the do-it-yourself "prosumer" movement have made Hollywood just another niche market that competes for audiences' eyeballs.

And the consumer electronics industry increasingly challenges the movie going experience as American middle class home contain technologies that make the den the equivalent of a 1930s private Hollywood screening room.

That's the environment that Hollywood must compete in. And increasingly, its movies just aren't up to the task.

Broadband speeds as currently projected by some to increase to increasing dramatically to multiple gigabits per second over the next 20 years. In contrast, like the audiences within them, movie theaters dramatically shrunk in size over the course of the 20th century. Samuel Rothafel's landmark Roxy Theater sat 6,200 in 1927, but the average individual theater inside today's multiplex seats about 225—and the bulk of those seats are usually unfilled. Forbes wrote in early 2001 that movie theaters nationwide are averaging 12% of daily capacity and 88% of its seats are empty.

So will the last moviegoer shut off the projector when he leaves the theater, please?

Ed Driscoll is a TCS Daily contributing writer.

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35 Comments

And the hope is...
that, instead of letting their inner moonbat have free reign in a spate of silly "indie" movies that feature drug-addled losers trying to have sex with and kill each other in wierd and creative ways, someone will decide to make movies that people actually want to watch.

Nah - can't happen...

Film is art...
The problem with art is you cannot throw money at it and reasonably expect greatness. Current high budgets are related to technology. Especially digital intrusions into 35 mm film. But these big budget films could not be made if no one put up the money and increasingly it is the professional investors. If the party is over and everyone starts losing all their money on all these projects then the big bucks will dry up.

However, we love great movies and our hope springs eternal. If the budgets get smaller as technology gets cheaper and the Wall Street fat cats lose interest Hollywood will still make movies, new artists will certainly be born and we will (eat popcorn and) watch.

You know the sky was falling years ago when Block Buster and the boys started renting video tapes and cable started showing feature films in the comfort of your home. But I just looked and it's still blue up there and I we paid $20 last Monday night to see Robin Williams almost be President. Fun. $20 million? Cool.

RIP
That means may it rest in pieces. Now that there's some kinda competition out there, there won't be such a captive audience for the crap they put out these days. Out here ouverseas friends are always bringing around those pirated DVDs they cheap and about 99% of them I can't stand watching; can't stand all the anti-americanism, left-wing propaganda, anti-business bias, etc. Mostly I prefer to watch the old ones on TCM.

It can't happen here
Correct me if I'm wrong, but the Hollywood film industry is designed to be a profit-making enterprise.

Why then, would they not want to make movies people want to watch?

I think one major problem is with pricing. At nine bucks a ticket, plus the cost of gas, the baby sitter, parking and five dollar popcorn, more and more people are seeking out lower costing entertainment instead.

Rental videos, DVD's and Tivo are all cheap, stay-at-home entertainment. A night at the Tiny Screen Fourteen costs a couple fifty bucks.

Examples?
You've really seen this? You "can't stand all the anti-americanism, left-wing propaganda, anti-business bias, etc."

Funny, I must have missed all those. Here's a list of the ten top grossing movies for 2005. See any left-prop, anti-American, anti-business movies among them?

http://www.imdb.com/Sections/Years/2005/top-grossing

A couple of points
Any notion that Hollywood isn't raking in the bucks is simply foolish. Even losers turn into winners with aftermarket DVD sales and releases in overseas markets and eventual television rights. Theatre release can be likened to nothing more than the initial promotion of the product. Helpful if you get a great response but not necessary in the long run. In theatre or at home, the audience is always demanding high production values, so the author's idea that big is diminishing is simply foolish.

And yes, big production sells if it's done well. Or does anyone in this forum challenge the notion that Lord of the Rings generated colossal revenues?

Finally, the author forgets or neglects the fact that the big revenue generators and most of the movie activity in Hollywood are not the big budget studio productions and not the indie film business but the X-rated industry. Their revenues dwarf that of the conventional movie business.

Shoot thats easht
380,262,555 Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith (2005)

The emperor is clearly President Bush and Vader is a Neo-con. Look how he is made to look its terrible.

291,709,845 The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005)

Nothin' but soft flufies. The witch, who was just expressing her god given talents was put down by the fealgood liberal lion.


289,994,397 Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)

Harry Potter? Clearly gay. Its only a mater of time before he finds a partner and demands a joining.


234,280,354 War of the Worlds (2005)

Come on? Once again the right is protrayed as a planet concering evil republican hord.


open your eyes dude, Out on your paranoid republican aluminum hat and trust your fealings.

Why not put on your DVD of "Jud Süß"
That should be perfect for your tastes. Slip in "Triumph of the Will" if you need a change of pace.

All true, except
Last year wasn't a good one for hollywood and IMO "Oscar Night" was representative of why. 2006 was actually a bit better for big films but, if the Awards gala goes the same route, they will further alienate the common folks. There are a lot of people who did not understand last year's selections but are willing to consider it an "off year". If the academy goes with a bunch of left-wing non-profit message movies again this year, I predict a very bad 2007 no matter what Hollyweed has to offer.

Then you can figure in the competition. The internet offerings are already hurting the X-rated industry and the movie industry as a whole. This is similar to what movie rentals did to the movie industry in the 80s.

On the one hand, I will go see a very good movie at the theaters; but I have to be convinced it is a good movie. My wife is a theater-goer and would like to drag me to every movie that hits the big screen.

We compromise by seeing movies in the theater that we can take our kids to or that are generally interesting. The rest of what we see we watch on DVD. The others we might see on HBO or when some other channel picks up the rights to them.

Unlike the 70s or 80s, I never go to a movie twice in the theater, seldom rent one for a second viewing and occaisionally watch one on TV for a second time. Why? There are fewer and fewer movies out there worth seeing twice; and most of those out there worth seeing again are comedies.

But there is one thing I do agree with. The money in the X-rated industry. Their total revenues are on par with the main stream movies, but their profit margins are through the roof. Why? They are all low budget by comparison, which is the point of this article. They don't pay out nearly as much for their "actors" or any other part of their production. Their budgets are extremely low and they make a lot of movies. 200 million in the X-rated industry will produce 1,000 films. 10,000 "Girls Gone Wild" videos.

That was the point of this article and most of those who agree with it. The days of the Big Budget, Hollyweed Blockbuster are numbered. The Big productions in the near future will cost $50 million, not $250 million.

The up side is that the days of paying actors $30 million a picture are also numbered. Big names will still draw big money, but not nearly what they once did.

About this bit
"The up side is that the days of paying actors $30 million a picture are also numbered. Big names will still draw big money, but not nearly what they once did."

Not sure I agree with that one. Our culture, if you can call it that, is more fixated by celebrity than ever. Big names still tend to result in a big draw, even if the movie is garbage. However, I agree with you that the old conventional business model may be under some stress. One possible response will be to make movies more sensational, or at least contain sensational elements. Just think of how many thousands went out to see a rather cruddy movie just to watch Sharon Stone flash the screen for half a second. T&A always sells.

Narnia, *Left* Wing?
I really hope this post was intended as sarcasm, but given the other entries, its a forlorn hope.

Narnia is about as much left wing propaganda as the Passion of the Christ was. . . and for pretty much the same reason. You *are* aware that its a Christian allegory, right?

of course
hehehe :-D

But then Christ was a Liberal.

Hmmmmmm...

Please skip politicizing Christ
christ was neither a liberal, nor a conservative. He is the great I AM (yawheh) which transcends pretty much every label there is. Claiming Jesus exclusively for a political party is just daft.

Doesn't Change the Fact. . .
. . .that the current left hates Christianity.

Deconstructing Hollywood
My goodness! I had no idea-- I only watch porn.

But come to think of it that plumber, come to unstop the housewife's drain? He must be George Bush. And the horny housewife, getting her plumbing fixed? Clearly the American people.

Thanks for showing me how to understand the modern cinema.

Too true
But their going to have to sell it elsewhere if the movies start losing millions. Can't pay some actress $30 million when the films budget is $50 million and it is expected to gross less than $100 million. Something has to give, and big budget salaries will be one of those things.

Suess?
Never heard of it, sweet Jew? In fact I'm pro-jewish and pro Isreali too. I like jews because they emphasis education and hard work. My relatives in canada say that jews there won't even make use of free welfare and all the nanny state programmes they have there, but look after themselves. And one of you guys said I'm republican, not that either, nor a democratic, nor even american, not even living in american. But I guess ill admit to being an austo-libertarian.

then maybe you shouldn't have fought for Hitler during WWII
oh, I forgot -- they made you. But you enjoyed killing your countrymen.

From a simple film editor
I work for an ad agency as an editor that markets hollywood's finest schlok. The financial waste in hollywood is amazing. Both in its production and marketing of films. Don't forget, some studios spend upwards of 25 million just to market one film; tv, theatrical, print and internet ads, only to have that film's opening weekend garner a meager 10 million. I wonder how many high paying marketing executives will have jobs once they are forced to work and market effectively and efficiently (on budget)?

hmmmmm - who am I kidding. They will alll get raises and promotions.

Alienation? Nah. New Media? Yeah.
I don't buy the alienation of the general viewer as primary culprit in the downfall of Hollywood. If so, why the upturn in the videogame market--rife as it is with violence and (increasingly) sexual material? Why the turn to the web?

The answer is in the last paragraph--"long tail." With cheap and varied content available instantly, in the home, the big screen feels like a dinosaur. The two arguments feel incompatible. If anything, the proliferation of new media has probably driven older forms into terrain they never occupied before.

re killing
I probably enjoyed it as much as say, the Iraqi cops who are taking out the bombers in the market places there, or maybe like the Lebanses that fought the palestinians who were trying to take over Lebanon some years ago, or maybe like the Malay guys who were still fighting commies, with the help of the British in malaya up to the 60s yet, or maybe like the chinese nationalist who were fighting Mao's commie forces up there. Did you ever help to stop some evil like communism, or are you one of the American left that has always supported communists counties? Or maybe you're sore because your parents were some of the communist inflitrators that they caught in the American govnmt during the Macarthy time.

Excuse me: you were working for HItler
Fighting against your own countrymen. Please don't associate yourself with actions by democracies. And please don't tell us what to do.

Objecting to Pat Robertson...
... is not hating Christianity.

actions of?
What all that about talking about the actions of democracies? Do you mean that it's OK for non-democracies to kill commies, like my examples of china, and malay(then a british colony, also singapore, also indonesians did). Or is it ok only for democratic ones. Or is it that you were one of them that wasn't caught before(or yet)?
But anyway you shouldn't be sore, because your side, the commies did actually win in eastern europe, since they were betrayed and given to the soviets. We notice that you never are able to give principal answers, and even other commenters mock you.

Placing a Religious Test on Supreme Court Candidates Is
(nt)

Sure: you just killed communists
You were working for the German military as an anti-partisan, but all the partisans were communists? Give me a break.

>But anyway you shouldn't be sore, because your side, the commies did actually win in eastern europe, since they were betrayed and given to the soviets

Nobody "gave them to the soviets." The Red army kicked the Germans out, after taking millions of casualties. Maybe you think we should have attacked the Soviets after VE day. If not, say what should have been done.

gave to soviets
Right, at the Yalta conference Churchill and Roosevelt met with Stalin and agreed to give them eastern euro, baltics, etc. Everybody knows that. So it means your side won, so you shouldn't be so sore. Also, us partisan hunters were local boys and we knew who they all were. So we didn't target the local shoemaker who was not involved, nor did we bother the schoolgirls at the nearby nunnery monastery. In theory it's possible that some innocents got killed, but our rules of engagement were rather different so we figured that if someone shot at us, that was enough reason to kill them. Sure wish the americans and brits would also do that in the middle east. Anyway be happy that your side won. At least I'm not a sore loser like you.

It's pretty obvious why you don't like films from democratic countries.
And as for Yalta: Yalta confirmed where troops were in 1945. The alternative to letting them stay there was to declare war on the Soviets. To repeat: is that what you say should have been done.

> Also, us partisan hunters were local boys and we knew who they all were. So we didn't target the local shoemaker who was not involved, nor did we bother the schoolgirls at the nearby nunnery monastery

Sure. you were just boy scouts with rifles. And nobody was against the ***** but communists. Sure.

Regarding this crap:
Anyway be happy that your side won.

My side was the U.S.; yes we did win. Your side was Germany: you lost, and yes, I'm glad Hitler didn't win. You don't seem to be. Sorry. But I can certainly understand why you can't find many films that fit your ideology. Again, slip Triumph of the Will into your DVD and remember the good old days.

Yalta etc.
Of course Stalin would have wimped out if the choice had been give up eastern europe and baltics, but instead Churchill and Roosevelt wimped out. Stalin would have wimped out because he knew that if would have been impossible to win against the west, esp. the west plus ameican nukes, and the west plus the remnants of the germans. But if it had come to war, yes, I would have gone to war against the soviets, just like general Patton also recommended, so I side with one of your amer. heros.
But I see we finally agree on something, I am also glad the amer. won. Perhpas you are mistaking me for somebody else, but I'm a guy who just hated the commies more than the nazzziss. But my side wasn't germany, I was one of their slaves; they had a lot of them, right? But I think you're the guy who said I should have commited suicide. What good what that have done, unless you wanted to see me dead and all those commies we killed alive.

Former Nazi combatant says what the US should have done.
You're sure Stalin would have wimped out. Most historians disagre.

Do you really think taking on the Red Army that had totally destroyed the Germans would have been a pushover?? Were we willing to lose 3 million men? Sure, a former Nazi combatant

>I was one of their slaves; they had a lot of them, right, t I think you're the guy who said I should have commited suicide.

I said a lot of your contryment fought them. You clearly didn't have the guts. Now you're telling other people what to do. Sure.

slave rebellions
I know that throughout history there have been some slave rebellions, mostly unsuccessful. We know that Spartacus had some success for awhile, but was then crucified by the romans. Then there was the one in Brazil, where then even formed their own quite large, separate community which was later also wiped out by the brazilian military. I've read of other such slave rebellions. But in the old country I actually saw what happen, not eventually, but immediately to anyone, including even real germans, not just guys like me, who did anything at all to threaten the naaazi regime. But I realize that sitting in your armchair, like most americans liberals, you wouldn't have a clue about it was like those days over there. And if you do take the trouble to read any history you will also find that mostly slaves do not really rebel much. You might also have noticed that even when they still had slavery in the US, the vast majority of slaves did not rebel. This is very telling, especially since the guys that owned them were really *****-cats compared to the naaazis. BTW, I wonder if you're also so bitter against guys in a similar position to me,like Werner von Braun, the guy who the US was happy to hire after the war, and went on to develop the Saturn V, amongst other things. Should he also have committed suicide? This is a rhetorical question because we all notice that you never give principaled answers.

So you didn't rebel, you helped the Germans killed slaves who did - but you're lecturing us about mo
Thank you for sharing.

>This is a rhetorical question because we all notice that you never give principaled answers.

and you've admitted not taking principled action when you had a chance. But everyone else are the moral slackers. Sure.

See, told you!
I knew you couldn't answer again! We're still wondering why you didn't want the american slaves and Werner von Braun to committ suicide, but only me.

American slaves did revolt
Von Braun didn't shoot down his fellow countrymen in cold blood. And you have no standing to lecture Americans about morality.

What religious test??? That they understand the first amendment???
And what's NT: Not true? New Testament? Nose Tackle??

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