Friday, October 9, 2009

The sad state of the movie business

To paraphrase Lloyd Bridges in that classic comedy Airplane, "I picked a bad time to give up job security".  This, along with several articles in the LA Times this week about the state of the film business is not good.  And as far as job security, the last time I had that was 1980, working for a TV station so my line should read more like "I picked a bad time to finance a feature film".

No kidding. 

Studios are crying in their bottles of Pellegrino as revenues are down. DVD sales as much as 25% (a note on this later). The Times quotes, "access to outside financing has vanished and production and marketing costs remain skyhigh." They suggest that there's been more change in the last 18 months than in the last 18 years. Sony (formerly Columbia) has put a hold on all screenplay development and purchasing until next year.

So what do they do. Well, what they've always done. 

First fire all the top executives and replace them with people who know even less. 

Where did this all begin, who's to blame?  My theory is this; the film business began going downhill when Entertainment Tonight began. 

Right, Mary Hart. 

She's the one responsible. Okay, maybe not Mary, who's been host for 50 years (okay, it just seems like 50 years).  A lot of people beside me agree with my theory.  Former studio head Bill Mechanic suggests "the world we live in now is so bloody public.  Every decision is blown up on a global basis almost as soon as it happens." 

What I take from that is this;  movies began to lose their lustre, their magic when Mary began reporting the week-end grosses of opening movies. This is the amount of money made on the week-end by a movie that opens and is crucial to studios to figure out how much it will make in the coming weeks. Now the public knew that if a movie didn't make much on it's opening week-end, then it must be no good. And as a result they wouldn't see it.  In  short, the audience knows too much about how movies are made and who makes them and which ones cost too much. The magic is gone and all that's left is CGI effects. 

The movies were wonders to me,  they took me from my little village to the rest of the world in a time when the world was a bigger place.  I guess it would be inevitable that the audience would figure it out but I didn't want to see how a movie was made, I wanted to escape into that world. 

Okay, truth is a lot of the movies today aren't that good, but there still might be an audience who would see it.  And then there's the stories about how a studio is having problems with a movie or a star, and again the public is privy to the battles and the bad word.  Add to that the internet critics who now number probably in the thousands, had their voice, whether good or bad. 

Who the hell is Earl Dittman you might ask.  He's a "film critic", apparently a real person who never gives a bad review.  When you see Earl's name on the ad, it's only because he's guaranteed to give a good review. Then there's the hedge-fund boys and girls, the ones who pumped tons of money into movies around 1999 to a few years ago who used private money to make really expensive movies that often flopped.  A huge amount of private investors got burned on those deals. 

There was also a glut of movies, even now, many with some major stars and these films rest on a shelf somewhere because they are mostly unreleasable.  I know what you're saying, it sounds like the movie business itself is responsible for it's own troubles.  And you're right.

There's nothing wrong with the movie business that a good movie can't fix. 

That sounds good, right? Wish I would have said it, but I didn't. It was a studio head and he said it back in the 1950's when TV was beginning to wipe the smile off feature film makers. It still holds true today. A producer recounts going to Jack Warner years ago, he had a script he wanted to make. Warner asked him who wrote it, who was gonna star in it and how much would it cost. That was it. That's all it took to get a movie made from those old guys.  They had gut feelings, not research.

I've been here for 20 years and when I arrived, it was a lot easier to look for work, to find it and to even get lots of it.  One year alone I worked on 6 movies, 2 were my originals and 4 were rewritten by me. Those days are gone.  You could find an agent without working too hard, one who would take you on and spend a year establishing you. That's gone.  Several big agencies bought out smaller ones and now you have a handful who only want superstars. Sort of like having only 5 TV channels when you had 100. 

And speaking of speaking of stars, it's become evident that they don't really deserve those $20 million paydays when their movies have $10 million dollar earnings the first week-end. Especially if the movie cost $100 million.  Yes, $100 million. And there's been a few of those recently.  But mostly it's young corporate executives who really take no risks anymore, all they want, as The Times quotes " is the tried and true moneymakers, referred to as  "branded entertainment": meaning sequels, movies based on toys, old television shows and other familiar themes." They do research and studies on movies and have drawn-out meetings discussing every aspect of the screenplay,

DVD sales can be as much as the movie made theatrically, or even more although it's usually about half.  Either way that's a lot of money. And that money has gone south, as they say. BlueRay is pretty much a flop as most people would rather buy a DVD of their favorite movie for $5 rather than a BlueRay of the same one for $30.  And the general audience won't really notice a difference in the quality. 

My theory is that we all replaced our VHS movie libraries when DVD came out and when we finished we had all we wanted.  BlueRay came out promising bigger and better but in reality, the quality as I mention above, isn't all that noticeable from regular DVD.  And this time the public didn't fall into the same replace your library trick.  We kept the DVD's we already had.   Sure there's a lot of us who wanted and desperately needed a perceived better quality format like BlueRay.  But most of us were happy with the regular DVDs. 

And so the studios lose out again.  Not to mention a large portion of the public is stealing movies off the internet.  And I don't mean just kids, I went back to my small hometown at the edge of Northern Manitoba and was surprised to find people in their 50's and 60's downloading recently released movies.  The studios don't really even begin to know how to deal with that.

So where does that leave Travel Day?

Well I have this crazy idea that this is the best time for Shirley and I to get the money to make this movie because... well because.

There's nothing wrong with the movie business that a good movie can't fix.  :)


  1. I did a picture with the late great Charlton Heston who had a similar theory to you... he said that as soon as we started having all of these "making of' and "behind the scenes" documentaries (now standard on most DVD's) we lost our mystique as an industry. Once you see how the magician performs his tricks, there is little to draw you to the show.

  2. Sadly yes, once you see the wizard, there's no more magic. Not to mention selling movies in supermarkets like cheese and corn flakes. But maybe that's "progress".

  3. I don't know. I love to watch the "Making of" videos. (I'd like to be the fly-on-the-wall PRODUCER of those videos!) Maybe mystique is exchanged for marvel. I still marvel at the whole movie-making machine - seeing the huge list of credits - how many people it takes to make a major motion picture. Another thing I love is watching behind the scenes of stunts, fighting shots, etc. It's amazing how they combine all the individual shots into a seamless series, often changing the lighting/color, and then sound effects and music to add atmosphere. It's still magical!