Hollywood Doesn’t Change Its Course Well in Digital Atmosphere

Doctor Dolittle
Everett Collection

This is the moment on the calendar when dire year-end analyses start appearing in the media — data-driven reports that are both portentous and ominous. The message is usually the same: The ground is shifting and Hollywood had better adapt or shrivel.

I’m persuaded that few in the industry ever read these reports, because Hollywood has never displayed a talent for accommodating change, and there is no sign of mutability in this behavior. Other industries seem able to assimilate new business models and shifting technologies, but Hollywood is traumatized by them, replaying its crises over and over again. It makes for messy economics but good showbiz.

The present cycle of change is more angst-producing because, as the Economist declares in its year-end report, “the era of easy money in Hollywood has toppled over, like a precariously stacked pile of DVDs.”

The DVD reference is apt, because the decline of the mighty disc was accelerated by Hollywood’s inattentiveness and lack of adaptability. “When the DVD was at its peak, the studios failed to reinforce its growth through broader distribution and price elasticity,” argues Warren Lieberfarb, who was the longtime head of Warner Home Video. “While electronic delivery is clearly the best hope to get revenue back on a growth track, the industry should have fortified the DVD as a way station in the ongoing evolution of entertainment delivery.”

Hollywood also displayed this kind of rigidity in the 1950s when the rise of television devoured 65% of the movie industry’s “habit audience,” the frequent filmgoers of their time. Instead of adapting its product to a new and younger crowd, the studios kept grinding out tired “program pictures” — genre movies made to fill out the schedule of studio-owned theaters — until they ran out of money. Richard Zanuck, then chief at Fox, looked on in disbelief as his stodgy late-’60s musicals like “Star!” and “Doctor Dolittle” opened to empty theaters.

Ironically, a generation earlier, it was Zanuck’s ferocious father, Darryl, then production chief at Warner Bros., who seemed frozen by the Great Depression, incapable of meaningful response. With the nation’s economy in paralysis in 1933, other studio chiefs advocated a 50% cut in salaries across the board, from grips to actors to executives. Zanuck stubbornly refused to accept a cut, proposing that Hollywood should simply wait out the Depression. The cuts came anyway, and Zanuck left Warners that year.

In its relationship with its stars, Hollywood also has displayed a neurotic intransigence. At the zenith of the studio system, top stars were put under rigidly exclusive contracts that dictated the course of their careers. When grosses started slipping, the studios revoked these deals as extravagant and irresponsible; stars, who were used to being coddled, found themselves out in the cold. The next iteration didn’t feature studio contracts. Instead, top stars were granted gross-participation deals — agreements in which they realized big bucks from a movie before it reached profitability. Under new studio models, such pacts, which were accepted then, are now deemed profligate irrelevancies.

Likewise, these days, just about every network chief will tell you pilot season is an anachronism, but no one thinks it will go away. As for movies, distributors generally agree that the amount of money spent on marketing is out of control, especially during awards season. And, of course, spending on awards supposedly is also out of control, yet this year in particular, the dollars keep rolling in.

For Hollywood watchers, these neurotic phenomena are entertaining to watch; for the number-crunchers, they pose an exasperating reminder that it is very difficult to manage either entertainment or the people who create it.

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  1. niki says:

    KODAK FILM PRINTS for theatrical film distribution to safeguard future films from hacking…

  2. TheBigBangOf20thCenturyPopCulture says:

    What TV was to movie theaters the web is to old fashioned media. A cure for New Hollywood dreck would be to bring back the professional perfectionism of the old studio system with all of its stringent regulations and then strictly require casting directors to study for college course degrees in casting.

    • LOL says:

      Way off the mark here, BigBang. What you’re proposing is both unrealistic and unfeasible.

      The big problem here is that our expectations of Hollywood studio development and mainstream cinema in general is the antithesis of yesteryears. The demise of genuine movie stars is an issue none of you address. Without movie stars you have no proper film industry. What we’re getting at the moment is ‘brands’, with no real commitment to thespian services; instead rebooting the ‘brand’ every five years with interchangeable acting talent. Hollywood cinema is essentially an iPhone – a corporate utility.

      I watched movie last night while at my old man’s place called Sea of Love. My dad remembers watching it on its release decades ago because Al Pacino starred in it, it being the actor’s first film role after years of hiatus. I thought the movie was crap but must admit that at least it had adult characters portraying lower middle class lives caught in believable, though extreme, plot situations. Try making that movie today at a major studio. It won’t happen, certainly not at that level. Without serious movie stars the films inevitably get blander and more unreal.

      The big problem is that cinema is losing its cultural value. It’s stopped being cool and has become all nerdy. Commentators talk about crap like The Guardians of the Galaxy being the apotheosis if cinematic essentiality, but it is not. It is a prime example of why American studio cinema is in the toilet.

      • Jedi77 says:

        While I disagree that the syudios don’t make Sea of Love films anymore, because they do, you really cannot blame them for not going all in. sea of Love was not even in the box office top 20 the year it was released. It was a movie that probably just made it’s money back.

        And also, those kinds of films don’t traditionally generate much BO overseas. The problem is not with the choice of films to make, it’s with the cost of making them, which often make them a bad investment.

        And of course there’s the problem of having an 8 year old audience of moviegoers. How many high quality films have been flops and how many terrible films have been hits? More than the other way around!
        And whose fault is that? Hollywood? No, it’s our own damn fault!

      • TheBigBangOf20thCenturyPopCulture says:

        Like I said, you need old soul wisdom to go from mediocre to classic. New Hollywood is run by Lord of the Fly kids. So if what’s new doesn’t measure up, it doesn’t matter that much. We had five good movie decades from the 40s to the 80s. All the more reason to live in the past and glorify the good old days.

      • LOL says:

        BigBang, I agree with you that my generation of execs and filmmakers sucks.

        But where does that get us? Peter Bart hankers for the old days too, but, lest we forget, the dude greenlit Revenge of the Nerds back in the day. That’s right, one of your mob gave the okay for that film. Where’s the justice there? Where is the sagacity in that decision?

        You, me and Bart may be years apart but we’re kind of wanting the same things. You guys allowed this damage to happen and now my generation is exacerbating the situation. It will get even worse.

        The current state of American cinema is at its worst and is killing the industry.

      • TheBigBangOf20thCenturyPopCulture says:

        By denying what worked in the good old days, you’re just avoiding the obvious out of jealousy. But I get it. You like to split hairs over what’s wrong so as not to place blame where it belongs with your own generation. Better movie stars, you say? And not writers, directors or bean counters who choose what dreck will appeal to sheepish masses? By the way, who keeps picking the same automatons to star in movies? It’s certainly not the oldtimers. Could it be casting directors who think casting is about the right androgynous mannequin who looks best in wardrobe instead of types to headline big screen charisma?

  3. John Shea says:

    Stodgy? Like ‘The Sound Of Music’ which made $135,000,000 in 1965, when that was still a lot of money? I am not persuaded by any of the supposed precedents quoted.

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