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Monday, February 25, 2013

Hollywood is Dead

Hollywood has no problem being dumb, sleazy and violent. Those are all known and marketable qualities. What it does not look is appearing desperate. Desperation however is what the Oscars of this year and last year have in common. They stink of an industry desperately racing its own age and irrelevance reaching for gimmicks to try and hang on to a younger audience.

The dirty little secret is that Hollywood hardly exists anymore. The industry is bigger than ever, but its bread and butter consists of 200 and 300 million dollar special effects festivals filmed in front of green screens and created in Photoshop and three-dimensional graphics programs. They star obscure or mildly famous actors and they do two-thirds of their business abroad.

America is still the official headquarters of the global entertainment industry, but many of the bigger projects are filmed internationally with foreign money and intended for foreign markets. What the American corporations bring to the table is the intellectual property which is why the latest spasm of mergers and buyouts has focused on taking control of every treasury of classic marketable properties.

Disney has put Star Wars, Mickey and Marvel Comics under one roof. It's impressive from a business standpoint, but bankrupt from a creative standpoint. Old Americana is being milked dry for the sake of turning out another disposable movie starring familiar characters. The movies are actually still the same.

The blockbuster has mutated into its final stage. The "individual" movie is almost dead. Forget Jaws or Raiders of the Lost Ark. The modern blockbuster is seamless and soulless. An impersonal work that renders the director and cast irrelevant. The criticism has been made before, but what is new now is the percentage of special effects and the cost. The more expensive a movie becomes, the more risk averse its producers are.

If a movie is going to cost 200 million dollars to make, then it has to be identical to the other 200 million dollar movies that were profitable. The template is there. All that's left is to plug in another talented Korean, British, Russian or even perhaps American director, and then roll out the same movie with characters from another property.

The movie must have collapsing skyscrapers, massive explosions and a few slumming character actors. What it cannot have is too much dialogue or plot, because those don't translate well. How a movie will play in Topeka or even Los Angeles doesn't matter nearly as much as how it will play in Beijing, Moscow and everywhere else.

Hollywood makes movies on the side. What it really does is manufacture special effects theme parks for other countries whose own entertainment industries are not yet ready for prime time. And the types of movies that it makes can be made nearly anywhere. And will eventually be made anywhere. Tinseltown is pretending to be artistic and creative, even while both qualities are dead as doornails.

These days Hollywood resembles the decline of the British film industry, kept alive by state subsidies and used as a talent base for other countries. At some point, American actors and directors will move on to next conglomeration of capital and audiences in Asia, the way that British actors and directors moved on to Hollywood. The next Hollywood will speak Mandarin. Its executives will buy up American properties and film them in China. The casts will be diverse, the plots will not exist and every movie will be mostly the same. In other words it will be exactly like Hollywood is now.

The blockbuster of 2025 will be Made in China. It will feature 1. Aliens 2. Robots. 3. Buildings collapsing. It will have a pro-China message, but the Western writers hired to insert some topical dialogue for Western audiences will throw in a few relevant lines for the version that is released here. The Indian, Russian and South American writers will do the same thing for their versions.

Hollywood will become the American distribution arm of a new global film industry that can make the same bad movies more cheaply and easily. Its executives will recommend properties for the head office in Beijing to buy up. Occasionally they may even be allowed to make some of their own movies. There will be plenty of nostalgia and the usual tawdry independent movies funded by taxpayer subsidies that you can find in Europe's own buggy whip movie industries.

The big wheels of the industry already know this. But they don't have much of a choice. Hollywood has been frantically chasing the youth market with each new incarnation of entertainment technology. Hollywood spent decades making movies bashing television for competing with it for its audience. Eventually the electronics companies that fielded the first television networks dumped their products into the same pool as the movie studios, but by then the internet had begun to take off. And all the movies demonizing the internet haven't done anything to stop it.

The movie/television/comic book conglomerates are competing for younger audiences against video games and the internet. And the internet is winning. The median age for most of the entertainment industry's products is old. Some of that can be attributed to demographic collection technologies that rely too much on traditional viewership, but much of it is just reality. Hollywood may bring in James Franco or the creator of Family Guy to host its industry party, but that doesn't change how old it is.

The entertainment industry dumbed down its products to the lowest common denominator to target the teenager. And in the process the entertainment industry destroyed itself. Television networks killed family hour to chase upscale twenty-somethings and wiped out their own viewership. Their big brothers destroyed the movie theater by making it indistinguishable from an amusement park ride. The television network model killed networks and the cable networks that adopted that same model are about to get whacked by the collapse of the cable bundle business model. The movie model made the movie easy to reproduce by any country with enough capital and digital artists. These days that's the People's Republic of China.

Hollywood movies are already being made to Chinese specifications, complete with Communist censorship, and that's only the beginning. If China's economy does not collapse, then it will become the tail that wags the Hollywood dog. And Hollywood will be history.

The death of Hollywood would have been a tragedy once, but these days it's almost a relief. It leaves behind a lot of great movies, almost all of them made in the past, and the best proof of that is the compulsive flood of remakes, reboots and reinventions of old properties. The spirit of the industry is gone and all that's left is a shambling zombie picking over its own brains and living off past glories while throwing elaborate industry parties that are little more than an expensive glorified reality show.

 Hollywood is still chasing relevance and the youth market. The theater conglomerates are figuring out new ways to squeeze twenty bucks out of customers in a bad economy to cover their own expenses which include revamping their theaters for youth-oriented gimmicks like 3D. But the problem is that in an economy where the under 20 and 30 crowd is out of work, those gimmicks are struggling to pay for themselves. Add in the high levels of unemployment among minority young males, who are the industry's best customers, and the picture looks even bleaker.

The Chinese kid has some money to spend after getting through a long shift of making iPads or grinding for virtual money in an online game. American kids have less money than they used to and the internet offers entertainment, including the latest pirated movies, for free, often offered by sites run by some of those same Chinese kids.

In this solipsistic environment, does the movie theater even have a future? How much room is there for a business model built around digital entertainment that doesn't run on the internet? Despite the billion-dollar grosses, theater owners are not entirely certain. There's a reason that a thimble's worth of soda and popcorn is so expensive and it's not because movie theaters are doing well. It's because everyone is behind and running up debt.

Movie studios throw fortunes into mediocre blockbusters and then spend the next three years wrangling over the profits, and cheating everyone from the director to the stars to their distributing partners of their fair share. Movie theaters pay out most of the money from the opening weekends to the studios and count on extended engagements to make money, but the modern blockbuster is one opening weekend after another with no extended engagements.

Everyone is deep in debt and counting on a string of hits to bring in audiences and save their business model. Everyone is merging and clustering together to limit the risk, while increasing the drag.

There's no future in that and Hollywood knows it. The industry is locking down intellectual properties because it knows that it's about to turn into Kodak after the digital revolution. An outdated business with nothing to offer except its rights to certain properties that more successful industries will want to make use of.

Hollywood is dead, but its corpse is still trying to carry on with business as usual. The inventive industry that mixed together vaudeville and adventure books into an entire industry that spanned the globe has long ago run out of ideas. Instead it's marking the time, deadening its nerves and doing everything it can to appear youthful. The parties are still being thrown as if the industry has not changed, as if it's still a band of salesmen and theater owners who opened their own studios and made and lost fortunes betting on geniuses and big concepts.

What we think of as Hollywood was a byproduct of the need to fill theaters, but the technology of filling theaters is being broken down on a more sophisticated level, without the need for creativity. What the big computers did to Wall Street, they are also doing to Hollywood. The future isn't a silver screen, it's a behavioral map of the most reliable ways of getting the industry's best customers into a theater to watch a product created in slave-labor countries based on templates that run on numbers, not creativity, even of the three-act kind.

Hollywood's past glories may live on as nostalgia, but it has no future. The industry is history.

30 comments:

Anonymous said...

what did you think of the macfarlane - wahlberg 'jews control hollywood' bit at the oscars last night?

-- spanky

Ex-Dissident said...

Why put up with lines, be surrounded by annoying theater goers, and sit in a dirty chair when you can enjoy the same image quality and sound at home? These days, the big screen HD tv's deliver this and you can watch movies that are currently playing in theaters for 5 bucks via your local cable company. Besides, most of these movies suck.

IgorR said...

I'm not too worried, there are still good independent movies being made. But seeing Mooch when I least expected it made me turn the TV off. I was mad, and I rarely get mad. And she never did win an Oscar for her Star Wars role.

Anonymous said...

You made you point after 3 paragraphs. Why continue so long that no one wants to repost?

Edward Cline said...

"What it cannot have is too much dialogue or plot, because those don't translate well."
Well, that scotches any chance of my novels being opted. Too much plot, too much dialogue that wouldn't appeal to one or two generations of text-message addicts. Too long in the way of stories, wouldn't appeal to short attention spans. Too much internal conflict, not enough whiz-bang-special effects and cars taking off in mid-air, twisting in the wind, and landing on all four tires. Farewell, Hollywood.

Daniel Greenfield @ the Sultan Knish blog said...

spanky, what else would anyone expect from him?

ex-dissident, couldn't have said it better myself

anon, I thought there were some other points worth making in para 4 and onward as well

Edward, well you never know. Some other types of movies occasionally do get made.

Rick said...

It's not just Hollywood that's dead. Movies, music, literature and other forms of modern art are all on the same trajectory. China, India and so on won't save Hollywood; they will just churn out more of the same crap, with their own political/social/philosophical spin.

Anyone who follows the business shouldn't be surprised in the least. Stories, scripts, actors, directors and crews are chosen not based on the best ideas or best workers, but based on who they know, what union they belong to, and the whim of the moment. It's a mirror of the Aristocracy of Pull in government, applied to Entertainment. When the best thinkers and the best ideas cease being primary drivers in any industry, the only direction possible is down.

Dave K. said...

I agree with Daniel and Hollywood has been going downhill for some time now. I haven't set foot in a movie theater for twenty years now and this is someone who saw movies like The Sting, Jaws, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Apocalypse Now and Young Frankenstein multiple times.

We rarely even rent movies these days because the quality isn't there and more often then not we end up dissatisfied.

Let Hollywood disappear for all I care. Maybe if there weren't so many distractions the last thirty, forty years, more people would have been paying attention to the downward trajectory this country has been on during that time.

Anonymous said...

I haven't watched the Academy Awards in years. The last movie of any meaning for me was ALIVE, based on a true story. I never would have seen it without pay per view. Ah, no pay per view. Now you get to "buy" the movie on cable aka rent it for 48 hours. Still cheaper than shelling out a small fortune to see movies with strangers.

Oh how I miss the drive-in I loved as a young kid--packing into the car at dusk with brown paper bags of home cooked pop corn, driving there with the sun following us I thought.


Typically falling asleep after the cartoons, though a few films stick out in my mind such as Herbie the Love Bug, and Yours, Mine and Ours.

Not to mention Rocky or my mother demanding that we leave after about 20 minutes of Serpico even though Al Pucino is Italian. Too many F-bombs. Well, one was one too many for my mother.

Hollywood is slipping away fast and will make any movies that it in its own views are entertaining or have "deep" meaning. But I wouldn't consider Hollywood's downward spiral as the end of the arts.

Cliche as it sounds everything old does become new again. People will hopefully yearn for substance and turn to the theatres, novels, folklore, and the philharmonics. They'll understand why Swan Lake was used as the opening music for the 1931 original version of Dracula and its importance and great symbolism of the 1930s and German Expressionism.

Of good turned into immortal evil.

Of Bela Lugosi speaking his lines phonetically but in English. The foreign accent gave his role something authentically Eastern European. Hollywood would totally reverse that and take an actor who speaks English as a first language and teach him to speak with a foreign one.


Not that I would like to see all films so dark or that Hollywood can even recreate them much less insert PC crap but they won't be lost to history, and hopefully people will long for the great substance of history and great operas, ballets, musical scores.

In any event I didn't watch the awards and only recognized two of the movies nominated, Les Miserables and Lincoln (didn't see Lincoln though).

Keliata

kevy99 said...

If Hollywood had to rely on me to pay for their glitzy productions, they would be flat broke. At best I might see a movie in a theatre once a year. That's just to spend an evening out with the family and not for the entertainment value they try to provide.
It's pretty sickening to watch these people try to grandize themselves. They provide absolutely no value to the culture of the country. In fact they have severly degraded our culture.

meema said...

Several years before my corner Blockbuster went under, I wandered through hoping to find a couple of movies for a long weekend. I noted the latest offerings of that time with a sense of defeat; the choices were abysmal representations of a culture in decline. As I made my way around to the check out counter, empty-handed, the clerk asked me if he could help me find something. I replied, “Do you have something that isn’t soft porn, destruction or vampire worship?” All he said was, “I know what you mean.” That was my last visit.

Movies are barometers of the culture but I think there is another element, less easily seen: I call it Top This Syndrome. Nothing is static anymore. There is a manufactured craving for bigger, better, higher, wider, more exciting, more stimulating. It is the OS of everything. It appears that we have reached the inevitable pinnacle and are in the downward spiral to major correction.

But what will we do when the Glamor Gods have no platform to instruct us on how we should think and feel? It’s a problem for sure.

Daniel Greenfield @ the Sultan Knish blog said...

That's what desensitization results in. The need to stimulate deadened nerves with larger displays.

Edward Cline said...

Rick: I'm less optimistic than Daniel about the chance of any of my novels being opted and produced. There is a teeny chance that my Sparrowhawk novels, a series set in the pre-Revolutionary period in Virginia and England, might be produced as a TV miniseries and I might even recognize it after the script teams have finished working it over. (I, the author, wouldn't be allowed much say in the butchery.) I've eleven published novels, aside from the six in the Sparrowhawk series, and they're all producible. But I'm not holding my breath.

I concur with your description of the Hollywood process as a reflection of the Aristocracy of Pull concerning unions, contacts, and whims of the moment. I might add just plain malicious envy on the part of hack screenwriters and their ilk in the industry for anything they didn't create. If it's a good story, and if they recognize it as such, they'll work overtime to cut it to pieces and dumb it down and get paid handsomely for it. And Hollywood is indeed dead if it allows the government in the person of Michelle the Moocher grandstand during the Oscars. I can't imagine a better bellwether of the direction that Hollywood will take from now on, not that it needed to be lead in that direction. It's been going that way on its own for a very long time.

fizziks said...

This just doesn't ring true.

Hollywood is putting out many successful movies, both in terms of critically successful and at the box office. The huge budget special effects-laiden Sci-Fi-ish blockbusters (e.g. John Carter, Transformers, etc..) that you seem to dislike (and I'm with you on that) are the minority.

Dramas are getting more topical, and Hollywood is starting to acknowledge real-life villains. Argo and Zero Dark Thirty are great examples from this year. Comedies are hit-or-miss, but look at the success of the Hangover franchise.

When people bemoan the current state of Hollywood (which has happened periodically for 60 years, let's not forget), they tend to be engaging in an unconscious bias, to wit: We remember only the best, most transformational movies from 20, 30, and 40 years ago. Maybe one movie per year on average really enters the cultural zeitgeist. So it is ludicrous to compare some random movie from this year to the best movie from 40 years ago and say that Hollywood is declining because Full Metal Jacket was better. Of course it was. There is PLENTY of trash now (romantic comedies, frat comedies, you name it) and there always was. But he best movies now hold up to the best movies from any era.

If you want to talk strictly business, you need to take a broad view. Theaters in major metro areas are packed, and while the mall cine-plexes in mid-sized cities are less so, there is a ton of revenue coming in from pay-per-view and DVD sales.

AG said...

Speaking of Hollywood, anyone else catch the Oscars where Chuck Hagel dressed up like a Teddy Bear and was interviewing Mark Wallberg?

Elise Ronan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Elise Ronan said...

I disagree with your premise. Hollywood is not dead. it has revitalized itself and created some interesting technology in order to do so. For some reason people tend to think that all of Hollywood's past were glorious and thought provoking cinema. Quite the opposite is true. We remember the great movies simply because the vast majority of films were bland, throw away clones of each other. Created to reach the lowest common denominator of society. What has changed is that other nations are using the same innovative technology and international outreach to challenge Hollywood. But it is Bollywood not China that is surpassing our film makers.

Besides those that won Oscars last weekend did so for extraordinary theatrical performances and the art of movie making. Other than Lincoln, who actually saw most of the nominated movies, even Les Mis? They did not speak to the majority of people. But Billions went worldwide, and paid trillions to see sophomoric comedies, blow-em-up movies and full length cartoons. Hollywood had one of its best years last year in history.

Now if you want to interject China into the conversation you are talking about something entirely different. You are talking about the economic decline of the USA and the rise of China. But that too is a false flag. If we are in hock to China, China cannot function without our repayment. If we cant' repay it is China that suffers in the longrun. Those who go bankrupt do rid themselves of debt and start again. That is China's real fear, that we will just not pay them back. What will they do then? War? hardly. They can't even feed or educate their entire population properly or provide proper medical care. Yes what they do have is factories of high technology material goods, something we are now sorely lacking here and something to think about. But if we don't buy they don't grow and they starve. However, as cyber security individuals also say, the next war, the real one going on right now, will actually be won without one shot fired. So in truth, a war, a conventional war for none payment of debt is not even a real issue.

The real problematic issue is the handling of our relations with China and how spineless the USA happens to be, unfortunately that is what you get in an Obama administration. But don't mix the two issues. Be angry about our relations with China but simply because you don't like the political and cultural bent of Hollywood doesn't mean they are in decline, just the opposite.

Latissimas Dorsi said...

There are great movies. Unfortunately the critics don't think so and pan them before the public has a chance to make up their own minds.
Critics are no-talent hack writers who like to tear apart other people's work when they can't do it themselves.

To the people who didn't see any of the movies and still have opinions on them: Are you nuts?
It's like dissing someone's cooking before you try it.
If Hollywood is dying it's because you snobs don't go to the movies.

Daniel Greenfield @ the Sultan Knish blog said...

fizziks, the big budget effects movies are the bread and butter of the industry. They're the core of what the industry does now.

DVD sales are down. Some theaters still pack them in, but the theater industry isn't doing all that well and attendance is uneven.

AG, good one

Latissimas Dorsi, do you have to see a movie to decide it's not worth seeing?

ZZMike said...

Another thing a Holywood blockbuster (a word whose meaning has come a lot closer to its WW II sense) has to have, is a lot of international locations. Gone are the dsays when a feature film could take place eentirely in one house. Our dashing hero has to chase sinister villians through Singapore, Malaya, Eastern Europe - as many locations as there are ticket-buyers.

That's where a good part of their revenue comes from.

A good example of the drying-up of their creative juices is their need to repurpose children's books and fairy tales: "Brave", Jack the Giant Killer becomes "... Giant Slayer" (perhaps "killer" is too violent a word), Red Riding Hood, Marvel comic books, ...

But Hollywood will still churn out shoot-em-ups with lots of explosions, because their main demographic is the teen-to-early-twenties crowd. Both that crowd, and manuy of the writers and producers, have grown up on MTV and its descendants, where any shot lasting longer than 5 seconds or so sends the viewer into a glassy-eyed stupor.

And they can remake "Casablanca" with Sean Penn and Lady Gaga, because no one has ever heard of the original.

Elise Ronan: You make a good point. "Lincoln" and "Argo" and "Life of Pi" are good movies (a cretian amount of dramatic license has to be expected). Maybe we focus too much on the shoot-em-ups and ignore the good ones.

About reviewers: find out who the good ones are - Roger Ebert was quite good in his day. I can't think of a good one these days.

FuzzyBear said...

I should start offering $10,000 in cash to buy the local theater, just to antagonize them. "A few years from now, you'll have wished you'd have listened to me..."

112 said...

Once again, you say what is on all our minds and refuses to come out. The question remains, then, is it worth saving?

Bradley Laing said...

Uh, Sultan, your article was written on a different planet than the one the people down at "One Million Moms" live on. For one thing, they've made clear that sex-filled books like "50 Shades of Grey" are the future of the culture. This is no surprise. The studies by Theodor Adorno in 1950-1960 proved that movies and television would be displaced by books, specifically heavilly sexually themed ones. If you took the time to read some Tim Wildmon, you'd have known that the wave of "desktop publisgers," almost all of them sexually explicit, has been displacing television and movies for years.

Anonymous said...

Hollywood reached it's peak in 1939. A long slow decline since then, mirroring the decline of the country. In any event, another reason not to go to a movie theater these days is that it exposes you to the absolute freak show the United States has become. Piercings, "body art", bizarre hair, slovenly dress, ghetto pants, vulgar speech, and above all obesity. Then, your eardrums are blasted at rock concert level during the previews, all of which are filled with the above referenced explosions. All of this before the movie, usually depraved and always filled with subtle left wing propaganda starts. America is an unhealthy place.

Cond0011 said...

They've broken all Western taboos, smashed religion, and rendered down all beliefs down to violence, gore, explosions and victory at any cost. A vast spectacle gore and exhibitionism. Behold the vast dead nihilistic sea of hell: A spectacle of everything and nothing.

So, whats to do now? What? More gore, explosions, violence and victory?

Ho Hum.

whatdirectdemocracymightbe said...

No doubt the quality of Hollywood films has fallen off precipitously in the past several decades. But I find it ironic that you of all people, a talented political blogger, haven't made any connection between the fall of the Soviet Union, i.e. the end of the Cold War, and the decline of American cinema.

Gone are the days when Hollywood itself played a leading role in our ideological war against the spreading empire of the hammer and sickle. Gone are all the tributes to American values, the celluloid celebrations of strong, resourceful American males -- Stallone, Wayne, Ford, Eastwood, even Redford -- beautiful, intelligent American women -- Meryl Streep, Sissy Spacek, Candace Bergen, even Jane Fonda -- and the traditional, dynamic American family -- Eight is Enough, The Cosby Show, Family Ties, etc.

We're instead now treated to apolitical or politically-correct, computer-enhanced garbage, in which the traditional American values are turned upside down or undermined without actually being replaced with something of equal or greater value -- empty movies with forgettable actors who no longer inspire strong role model sentiments.

It's the era of the anti-hero, where boyish-looking men pass for bad asses(sorry, Matt Damon); and 100 lb. women prove too much for trained 200 lb. killers(sorry, Lucy Liu.) We're in an era where harsh reality has made way for whimsical wish fulfillment, aided all too often by bad CGI.

Gone then is that old healthy balance between on the one hand exalting our greatest strengths, embodied by our finest actors, while, on the other, using their admirable talents to explore all our common vulnerabilities, exposed through the plot twists of a well told tale.

The final irony then is that it might well take a China -- and a new Cold War with an encroaching, hostile empire -- to stoke the kind of patriotism that once made the movie-going experience as satisfying as it once was.

Daniel Greenfield @ the Sultan Knish blog said...

Did Hollywood ever play a leading role in anti-communism? Cinematically speaking it at best broke even, even during its better days.

American action movies and sitcoms were sops to a traditional audience, but they existed side by side with programming that reflected the real Hollywood. Now the sops have been mostly disposed of.

whatdirectdemocracymightbe said...

Hollywood towed the patriotic line largely because the movie-going public rightly perceived a real threat to peace from Soviet ambitions and would not have tolerated openly anti-American movies during the Cold War. Whether Hollywood played this role willingly is irrelevant. Things were different then.

And they did much more than "break even." You seem to have missed out on the zeitgeist of that entire era. Perhaps you hadn't yet moved here from Israel; or you were too young.

Which movies "reflected the real Hollywood"? Reds? O.K., that's one. I'll see your Reds and raise you a Red Dawn and a Red Heat. It's not even close to a draw. It's a shame you didn't get a chance to appreciate how it once was.

Anonymous said...

I am thankful for TCM - Turner Classic Movies - just about any of the films shown on TCM are better than the crap in theaters today.

It's not just movies that are bad today, so is music.

People should continue to vote with their wallets. In Manhattan, movies charge $13.25. They lost me at $10.

Anonymous said...

Hollwood is a joke. I stopped watching any movies are wasting my money on utter garbage like "The Expendables".

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