I spent Oscar week in Los Angeles, and after lengthy chats with film executives and agents, I detail below the long-term issues concerning Hollywood. But first, to sum up: I’m convinced they’ve never seen their business in a greater state of disarray than it is right now. Vets who’ve done this for decades admit they feel less confident than ever about the formula to create hits, and are perplexed why it has become next to impossible to create movie stars anymore (Channing Tatum was on all their lips after The Vow, Chris Pine and Tom Hardy less so after This Means War, but beyond Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp, Tom Cruise, Denzel Washington, Adam Sandler and Will Smith, do any actors draw reliably at the box office?). And there was a palpable lack of excitement for the Oscars, which is clearly hamstrung not by the imagination of its producers, but rather the Academy’s unwillingness to get off its high horse and start showing audiences around the world what they really want to see.
We are in a period where major studios have been burned enough by tentpole bets that nearly all have become infatuated with making films that cost under $10 million. One exec held his arms wide to express the divide that has become the priority for studios. One side represented films that cost nothing and had no stars, while the other represented $100 million-$200 million bets that are concept- and not star-dependent. “They’ve almost completely vacated that middle space where star-driven movie were a staple of the slate,” the executive told me. These “found footage” movies may bring opening weekends, but good reviews are hard to find.
The current uncertainty is the result of a business in transition that will eventually evolve into new consumer-friendly distribution models, but that process needs to speed up. The recent box office momentum provided by films like Safe House and The Lorax figures to screech to a halt this weekend with the opening of A Thousand Words and John Carter. The Eddie Murphy comedy shot four years ago harkens to a pre-financial crisis time before studios stopped paying prime sums to stars who don’t ensure opening-weekend grosses. Murphy once had a quote of $12 million-$15 million against gross, but who’d pay that now after his string of flops? A Thousand Words had to come out some time, and found its way on the calendar when Murphy was set as Oscar host. He bailed on that gig and now Paramount distributes a $70 million legacy from its days owning DreamWorks, which produced it. I’ve heard each studio is quietly pointing the finger at one another. The same kind of thing is going on with Disney’s softly tracking film John Carter, which cost $250 million or maybe more, depending on whom you believe.
Current management has credited this one to Dick Cook, even though he hasn’t been on the lot since being fired in September, 2009. My colleague Nikki Finke has predicted John Carter might be the biggest write down in film history based on soft early tracking, and it will likely be far short of the $70 million opening weekend needed to turn such a pricey film into a hit. Cook supporters say current management should have put politics aside and not allowed Andrew Stanton to be given more rope than perhaps any first time live-action director since Orson Welles. This was a political minefield, because Stanton is a gold mine for Disney-owned Pixar — writing or directing such cash cows as WALL-E and Toy Story — but $250 million or more for a movie with no discernible audience awareness for the material, and a marketing campaign that didn’t help matters? Cook supporters also point out that nobody at the Mouse House tossed Cook the bouquets when Alice In Wonderland grossed over $1 billion.
Here are some of the long-term issues that executives were most concerned about, starting with the reason I was out there, the Academy Awards:
Why can’t the Academy face the fact that its stuffiness and stubbornness has turned movie’s most important night into the Super Bowl for dress designers? The red carpet pre-show has become a more anticipated event than an awards show that focuses too much on a Hollywood past the masses don’t care about, technical awards the masses don’t care about, and movies from last year that audiences either saw or decided not to see a long time ago. By comparison, the recent Grammy Awards handed out awards for last year’s tunes, but the show started with Bruce Springsteen singing a song off his new album, and a parade of talent kept tickling its audience with what’s next. Why can’t the movie business do the same thing?
Instead of Cirque du Soleil, what if Oscar promised an exclusive clip of Tom Cruise singing an ’80s rock number in his decadent hair band rock icon character from Rock Of Ages? A clip showing the giant dragon Smaug or a battle scene from Middle Earth from The Hobbit? A killer scene from The Hunger Games? One from Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s revisit to Alien terrain? The Dark Knight Rises? An action scene marking the return of James Bond in Skyfall? You get the idea. All of these scenes would be exclusive, and this could become a tradition which could be promoted and would give a global movie-loving audience more to embrace than dresses that actresses are wearing.
Insiders say this hasn’t happened because the Academy is intransigent in its fear that the integrity of the awards would be compromised. After all, they only just started allowing movie ads during the telecast. Hey, Academy: join the 21st century. And while we’re at it, doubling the number of Best Picture nominees has mostly added a few more films most people didn’t see. Why not create some other awards that honor the best comedy or best ensemble, which might give the unwashed masses something to root for? And when you have a year where Harry Potter was again ignored for Best Picture after an eighth installment that marked the end of an unprecedented achievement of an engrossing serial that grossed $8 billion, why not INVENT AN AWARD that gives the cast and filmmakers the chance to take a final bow in front of a grateful global TV audience? One exec suggested if the Academy can’t get it together, perhaps the best move is to return to the old days when the awards were bestowed during a dinner party at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel.
This dovetails into the other prevailing gripe among film executives and agents: the need for studios and exhibitors to wake up to the fact that audiences want what they want when they want it, on the delivery system they want it on. The snail’s pace revenue run of a movie from opening weekend to DVD and VOD takes too long and is too expensive to support, particularly when most movies do the bulk of their box office the first three weekends. One agent wondered why the industry, after having its sell-through business crushed by kiosks charging $1 for rentals, doesn’t go back to the old system of high-priced DVDs, until VOD matures to the point where DVDs become obsolete.
The prospect of movies coming out in ancillary form months after a movie has played out seems as ridiculous as the old style Hollywood journalism I practiced most of my career at Variety, where I would polish stories all day and turn them in at day’s end so I could tell you tomorrow what I knew today. Isn’t it better to let Hollywood know Chris Nolan’s agent Dan Aloni was leaving CAA while he was being escorted out of the building? With continued advancements in home viewing systems, studios are probably going to have to change terms with exhibitors and cut them in on the proceeds so that films can be released day and date or weeks later for premium prices on VOD. But it isn’t happening nearly fast enough.
Until that happens, the current climate of contraction — the Summit-Lionsgate mash-up eliminated a buyer and left good execs on the street, and DreamWorks is stalled waiting to reup with Reliance — has film agents proactively pushing talent into television. HBO, Showtime and the cable nets made series work a viable option for feature stars, but did you ever imagine Dennis Quaid, Sigourney Weaver and so many other movie stars would be doing pilots? Agents tell me that until the movie industry is righted, the money is better on TV over elusive feature roles at take it or leave it prices. More feature directors and writers are also jumping into TV, crowding out established small screen talent.