×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Hollywood Doesn’t Change Its Course Well in Digital Atmosphere

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.

More Voices

  • emmy dvd

    The Goodbye to Emmy DVD Screeners Has Already Begun (Column)

    Pour one out for the Emmy DVD screener. The Television Academy will no longer allow networks and studios to campaign by sending out physical discs as of next year, and thankfully some companies aren’t even waiting that long to eliminate the much-maligned mailers.   With Emmy For Your Consideration campaign season in high gear, those screener [...]

  • Taylor Swift's "ME!" Video Brings the

    Swift Take: Taylor's Dazzling 'ME!' Is a Phantasmagorical Sugar Rush (Watch)

    Taylor Swift has been leaving Easter eggs for her fans, with clues about the title, themes, et al. of her new single. The video, as it turns out, is almost like diving into a literal basket of Easter eggs. The opening title card for “ME!” reads “directed by Dave Meyers and Taylor Swift,” but we [...]

  • Contract Placeholder Business WGA ATA Agent

    WGA, Agents Face Tough Issues on New Franchise Pact (Column)

    The Writers Guild of America and the major talent agencies are seven weeks away from a deadline that could force film and TV writers to choose between their agents and their union. This is a battle that has been brewing for a year but few in the industry saw coming until a few weeks ago. [...]

  • FX Confronts Streaming Thanks to Disney

    Kicking and Screaming, FX Is Forced to Confront Future in the Stream (Column)

    During his network’s presentation at the winter Television Critics Assn. press tour, FX chief John Landgraf made waves — and headlines — by mounting perhaps his most direct criticism yet of Netflix. Landgraf, whose briefings to the press tend to rely heavily on data about the volume of shows with which FX’s competitors flood the [...]

  • Longtime TV Editor Recalls Working for

    How a Bad Director Can Spoil the Show (Guest Column)

    I have been blessed with editing some of TV’s greatest shows, working with some of the industry’s greatest minds. “The Wonder Years,” “Arrested Development,” “The Office,” “Scrubs,” “Pushing Daisies” and, most recently, “A Series of Unfortunate Events.” I have earned an Emmy, ACE Eddie Awards, and many nominations. But whatever kudos I’ve received, over my [...]

  • Stock market Stock buyback

    Stock Buybacks Leave Firms Without Funds to Invest in Future (Column)

    Corporate giants on the S&P 500 have spent more than $720 billion during the past year on stock buybacks. Media and entertainment firms account for only a fraction of that spending, but even $1 million spent on share repurchases seems a foolhardy expenditure at this transformational moment for the industry. The record level of spending [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content