Just because Steven Spielberg says the sky is falling, is the industry really in trouble?
I think it's safe to say that the film business is in a period of transition.
I think it's dangerous to pretend that anyone knows how that period of transition is going to resolve itself.
Steven Spielberg and George Lucas made headlines this week when they spoke at USC as part of the grand opening of the new Interactive Media Building, which is part of USC's School of Cinematic Arts. I think the reason the quotes ended up getting the sort of traction they did in the press is because there's something irresistible about hearing two of the men responsible for the age of the modern blockbuster talk about how blockbusters are ruining Hollywood. There have been a wide range of reactions to the quotes online, but by far, the leading sentiment seems to be a sort of gloating over the idea that these guys are finally realizing what they've done to the industry.
It's an easy claim to make, but it's a hard one to actually back up. By now, it's almost just accepted as a given that "Star Wars" and "Jaws" created the system that exists today, but there's a world of difference between the films that launched Lucas and Spielberg to the top of the business and the films that show up in our theaters week after week right now, and trying to claim that these guys were the ones who lowered the bar does a disservice to the films they made and to the conversation that's worth having about the way decisions are made at the studio level today.
No matter what success George Lucas eventually had with "Star Wars," when he made it, there was nothing about the film that was a guaranteed easy hit. He was not adapting an existing piece of material. He was paying homage to what was essentially a dead form at the time, the space opera serials, and he started production on the film not even sure it was technically possible for him to finish it. And "Jaws" was hardly a guaranteed success for Spielberg, who spent most of the shoot so famously stressed out that it's amazing he finished it. When we talk about the effect these guys had on the business, it's in hindsight, and even once they had a few successes under their belts, they continued to do things on a much smaller scale than today's tentpole filmmakers. If you tried to make a big summer action movie for the same budget as "Raiders Of The Lost Ark" today, no studio on Earth would give you the greenlight because they'd say it was impossible. Sure, "E.T." may have shattered box-office records, but it was made for a fairly modest budget. Even "Jurassic Park" is, compared with most of this summer's movies, a mid-budget affair, with less than 80 visual effects shots in the whole film.
The game that is being played today is so different and so dangerous that it makes sense that Spielberg and Lucas would speak up about it and be somewhat aghast at how things work. One of the reasons everything is based on something else, whether it's a remake or an adaptation or a sequel or a prequel or whatever, is because Hollywood has become incredibly nervous about taking risks, but at the same time, they've allowed the average studio budget to either skyrocket out of control or they're determined to do it for pennies on the dollar. When everything you make costs either less than $5 million or more than $150 million, the model is broken. There's very little room for failure with the big films, and you really can't count on the tiny films being giant performers.
When Spielberg said that he sees an implosion as inevitable, I think he's right. Look at Disney right now. They're pinning their hopes on the Marvel movies, the "Star Wars" franchise, and the Pixar brand, with very little room for them to do anything else. You're talking about giant movies, like this summer's "The Lone Ranger," where they're staking $250 million on the idea that the viewing public wants to see another Gore Verbinski movie where Johnny Depp clowns around during well-orchestrated mayhem. If they're wrong, that's a pretty serious kick the balls, no matter what else you release in that same year.
The part of the prediction that I think Spielberg and Lucas get wrong is the idea of movie theaters moving towards a Broadway model, where you pay more for the big giant films and less for the smaller indie movies. That's suicide. At that point, just stop releasing the smaller films to theaters altogether. When you tell the audience up front, "This is worth less than that," you are slitting the throat of the smaller film. And besides… it's not true. I get just as much bang for the buck out of a ticket for "Before Midnight" as I do out of a ticket for "Man Of Steel." One of the reasons I love movies is because I can pay the same thing to see "Stories We Tell" that I would pay for a screening of "Iron Man 3." Small does not mean lesser, and if you start training the consumer to think that the only films worth paying for are the giant spectacles, you are contributing to the death of the smaller films. Hell, you are encouraging it at that point.
I think the really shocking part of the article is Spielberg admitting that "Lincoln" was almost an HBO film. This is where we should focus our anger. Spielberg and Lucas have managed to remain fairly potent commercial forces over the years, but most of the guys who were big filmmakers at the time they were first making movies have been pushed to the margins by the industry, and it is infuriating to me to watch it happen. If you went into most studios in town and told them you wanted to make a big film with William Friedkin or Joe Dante or John Carpenter or Brian De Palma, you would be laughed out of the room. It's easy to say, "Well, their new work isn't good," but considering how few opportunities they get these days to prove their chops, I think it's more a case of the industry creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Spielberg and Lucas created entire companies that have been a big part of what has kept them in the game, but not every filmmaker wants to do that, and frankly, not every filmmaker should have to do that.
Ultimately, what Spielberg is describing is something that I think has to happen and should happen. More importantly, it's something that has happened before. Hollywood had lost its way completely in the late '60s, and the things they were cranking out were increasingly aimed at an audience that did not exist, an audience that used to exist but that simply wasn't there anymore. Audiences were hungry for something new, and in a post-"Easy Rider" world, they got it. Someone finally started speaking to audiences in a language they recognized again, and the power order shifted completely, and the industry managed to grow back in a new and different way. Well, that time is here again, and the real lesson to take from history is that filmmakers will find a way to bend the system to their will, and the ones who figure out how to reach this new audience and how to speak to them in a way that connects will help create whatever the next version of our industry is. Distribution may change, the places and the ways we watch things may change, but deep down, it will always be about filmmakers telling stories that people want to see. Big stories or small stories is not the point now, and it never really is. What matters is that we stop chasing the money and we stop pretending that cranking out pre-processed crap is the way to fix anything. Audiences deserve better, and so do filmmakers.
I have no doubt change is coming. But I refuse to be afraid of it.