Peter Bart and Mike Fleming Jr. worked together for two decades at Daily Variety. In this weekly column, two old friends get together and grind their axes, mostly on the movie business.
BART: I don’t want to sound nostalgic, but do you remember the days when working in the entertainment business was considered a good job? When I was first hired by a movie studio, my journalistic friends all said, ‘Man, you’ve got it made.’
FLEMING: Since you take a vow of poverty to be a journalist, I’ve thought that about journalist pals who took studio PR jobs.
BART: That’s definitely the past. Here’s the reality of the moment: Warner Bros. has started a new wave of firings. Sony is still in the middle of its cost cutting. Overall show biz employment (including music) is down 19 percent over five years. The big talent agencies are cutting jobs and also expense accounts (in this town that’s like an attack to the scrotum). It’s tougher than ever to get a starting-level job, unless you want to join the army of non-paid interns (who work longer hours than their bosses). Is business that bad? Not if you look at the numbers. The entertainment giants are delivering profit margins in the area of 28 percent, better than the corporate average, according to one study. Margins for film and broadcast companies range from 12% to 19%. Despite dire criticism from Wall Street, the Sony studio (film and TV) is delivering solid profits while its corporate parent will report a projected $2.15 billion loss – in other words, Hollywood is the only bright hope of the electronics giant. So why the continued cutbacks? Is it all about the appetites of the bankers rather than the realities of the business?
FLEMING: I think it’s because the status-quo execs in Hollywood are so shackled to quarterly earnings and fiscal pressure from parent-company conglomerates that they have drunk the Kool Aid, forgotten why they got into this business, and think that the layoff qualified as innovation. To them, innovation is cheesy-looking 3D conversions designed to drive up grosses through higher ticket prices and is just about as helpful to the viewing experience as when they colorized black-and-white films. Or Blu-Ray. My eyes aren’t that bad, and I don’t notice much difference between Blu-Ray and standard DVDs, beyond the higher price. So-called innovation is designed to find low-hanging ways to squeeze extra drops out of an over-milked bovine. Since you invoked the term scrotum, I am reminded of a recent discussion I had with a high-level production exec who, while we were talking about the general malaise and derivative movie content around town, observed that the movie biz feels like Detroit back in the ’70s, when the Big Three automakers owned the game, stopped innovating and watched it all get swept away by more inventive import-car makers. They (the competition) generated user-friendly cars that got better gas mileage and cost less than American counterparts. You only have to look at the current blight in Detroit to see how that worked out.
BART: Producers in film and TV are finding a landscape of mixed messages. And the deal-making scramble grows ever more complex. Arguably the studios may be repeating their classic mistake in their relationship to television. In the ‘50s and ‘60s, the ‘habit audience’ of filmgoers drifted en masse to television. The studios had no idea how to respond other than to go on making the same drivel. Then came the good news: They basically ran out of money and had to scrap their deals and managements and a whole new epoch of films went into production. Today the most interesting and innovative fare is appearing on television. I’d prefer to see a new episode of, say, The Knick, than pay to see The November Man at a theater. The response of the studios? Crank up the number of superhero deals until comic-book movies will be opening back to back. In short, here we go again.
FLEMING: Well, if studios and exhibitors wait that long, they might find consumers vote out the traditional movie-going experience, the way they did with American cars. Here’s one nominee: when I was at Toronto, I and execs from studios got invited by the progressive talent agency Verve to experience a demonstration staged by Felix & Paul Studios. Felix La Jeunesse and Paul Raphael are a couple of smart guys who have figured out how to project groundbreaking content that completely cuts out the movie theater. Using technology from Oculus (the company Facebook bought for $2 billion) and Samsung, they have come up with a way to create content for these Oculus goggles that shut out the world and give you a 360-degree 3D-image experience. They put the goggles on me, snapped the Samsung phone onto the front, and placed headphones over my ears. Suddenly, I am looking at imagery from space, where an asteroid lazily floats from the right side of the screen to the left. I follow the asteroid, turn my head and notice that I can do a 360-degree turn and there is imagery behind me. I look up, and down, and I am viewing corresponding parts of the solar system. Then, I am in some kind of hut in Mongolia, and to the left there are parents talking, and to the right, children eating and singing. I look down and see the floor, look up and see the thatched roof.
Guess what? Oculus is going to start selling these things for like $200 before year’s end, and new Samsung phones will have the technology built in. This will lead to the production of episodic programming to fuel the demand, spearheaded by the Felix & Paul team. There surely are similar projects in the works from their rivals. Why leave it for a director to determine the frame you see, when you can make that decision yourself? I don’t exactly know what this means, but I can tell you for me, it was that caveman-looking-at-fire moment. This is not the first time this caveman has been so impressed — those late-night commercials with the guy who uses the rubber spray to turn a screen door into a floatable boat is pretty cool — so take it all with a grain of salt. But why bother to see a movie in a theater, or be forced to wait 90 days to see that film on DVD, when I can stay home and watch programming on this gizmo that creates an experience close to the fictional storyline of that Natalie Wood–Chris Walken movie Brainstorm than a movie screen?It is disruptive to the point it makes you a little dizzy because of the sensory overload.
BART: What you describe is very persuasive except for one factor: As I visualize you sitting there with your Oculus goggles, lost in your very private entertainment cocoon, I see yet another form of self-isolation. Many in society work alone with their computers, often at home. The only communal experiences consist of movie going or drinking at the sports bar. So movies and TV will now suggest isolation as well. Will that mean that the bar becomes the lone form of inter-action? I like to drink, but that’s too much.
FLEMING: Fair point. But I am reminded of something that former TW chief Jerry Levin wrote on Deadline when he railed against Murdoch’s takeover of the company he once ran. If you were looking for a jolt of creative energy from a merger, maybe he’s right and you should go with these spectacularly imaginative people who come from the digital sector. It will be these disruptive kids who steal the ball while studios are watching quarterly earnings, readying pink slips, and fighting with theater owners about closing windows. The future is coming, and I don’t believe they are ready. But then again, I tried that miracle rubber spray in an attempt to plug a hole in a fountain in my yard. It didn’t hold and I’d hate to be floating in a boat made from that rubbery foam. Maybe this immersive technology is not entirely the answer, but the answer is coming, and studios are too busy cutting costs to spend time looking for it. They hardly even pay producer-overhead deals or develop projects anymore, which seems like acceptable R&D costs.