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Ed Driscoll

Hollywood’s ‘New Abnormal’ and The Death of the Movie Star

June 30th, 2013 - 7:50 pm

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As veteran Hollywood producer Lynda Obst makes abundantly clear in her enjoyable new book Sleepless in Hollywood: Tales from the New Abnormal in the Movie Business, Hollywood’s got a fevaaaah, and the only prescription is cranking out more and more superhero and sci-fi franchises. Warner Brothers has Batman and Superman, Paramount has the Star Trek and Mission: Impossible franchises, and Disney has Marvel Comics and now Star Wars as well.

Beginning with the subhead of her book’s title, Obst calls this “The New Abnormal” — the Old Abnormal she defines as the revolution that Spielberg and Lucas ushered into Hollywood via Jaws and Star Wars, and basically exhausted itself sometime after 9/11. (Obst explored some of the reasons why in the excerpt of her book in Salon, which we blogged about a couple of weeks ago.) Of course, the Old Abnormal itself replaced an earlier abnormal cinematic era — “New Hollywood.” That was the post-studio system period, when Hollywood stopped ingratiating itself with the audience, and started producing all those dark cynical (and occasionally brilliant) films that dominated the pre-Lucas 1970s, an era whose alpha and omega works were summed up in the title of Peter Biskind’s definitive history of New Hollywood, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls.

Obst explains the formula for ‘The New Abnormal” thusly:

1. You must have heard of the Title before; it must have preawareness.

2. It must sell overseas.

3. It should generate a Franchise and/ or Sequel (also a factor of 1 and 2).

And when you’ve got franchises and sequels, you have much less need for expensive, temperamental superstars. Which explains this recent headline in the London Independent: “The last action heroes: Have Tom Cruise, Will Smith and Brad Pitt lost their mojo?”

Studios now have more control over their product when stars are not involved. This is especially true of superhero movies. The exception that proves the rule came recently when Robert Downey Jr caused a ripple by threatening to stop playing Iron Man. The studio dithered, no doubt knowing they could save a fortune by letting him go. Fans balked and the studio relented. A hefty payday will see him star in Avengers 2 and 3, a comic-book ensemble that doesn’t need Downey Jr in it to guarantee bums on seats.

A caveat is that the appeal of the stars seems to have not been so diminished in foreign markets, especially nascent territories such as China and Russia. There has been a big shift in Hollywood studios’ attitudes in the last 10 years as the takings from foreign markets have started to dwarf those of domestic audiences. So while After Earth was deemed to have bombed in America, foreign takings a week later softened the crash landing.

The reaction of Cruise and Smith to their box-office numbers suggest they are in consolidation mode. Cruise has abandoned plans to star in an adaptation of 60s TV show The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and announced that he’s making a 5th instalment of Mission: Impossible. There’s also talk that he’s considering turning Jerry Maguire into a TV show. Will Smith has been on American talk shows downplaying the weak opening of After Earth and, while talking about looking for more risks in his choices and moving away from blockbusters, he has also been rumoured to be preparing for sequels of Bad Boys, I, Robot and Hancock. Although his Men in Black franchise has seen each sequel make less money than predecessors. The stars are following the studios in relying on their best-known characters to sell their movies.

What’s intriguing is that there seem to be no successors to Cruise, Pitt and Smith. The recent huge blockbuster franchises have been superhero movies, Batman and Spider-Man, or ensembles based on books, Harry Potter, Twilight and Lord of the Rings. It’s hard to imagine Christian Bale breaking box-office records outside of the bat-suit. The summer blockbusters have evolved away from being star vehicles as studios have hit on a formula where they can call the shots. That’s bad news for the non-tights-wearing action star.

It’s actually not all that “intriguing” as to why there are few successors to Cruise, Pitt, Smith, and their older partners-in-greasepaint such Bruce, Sly, Harrison and Schwarzenegger (and Mel Gibson before he nuked his career). They’re the last remaining action-oriented superstars before the rise of World Wide Web completely demassified pop culture beginning in the mid-1990s. Since none of these actors are getting any younger, Hollywood has increasingly relied upon the sci-fi and superhero franchises that existed before the demassification of media to provide a reason for audiences to go out to the movies.

Unfortunately, the result is  a dismal chart such as this, reproduced in Sleepless in Hollywood as a damning portrait of Hollywood’s lack of creativity:

hollywood_Loss-of-Originality-STATS8

Click to enlarge.

On the other hand, there is a new hope, to coin a cinematic phrase, which we’ll discuss right after the page break. (Pick up some popcorn in the lobby while clicking over.)

As a byproduct of the New Abnormal, Obst writes that the movie industry has become increasingly bifurcated, between the aforementioned zillion dollar superhero franchise pictures, and comparatively micro-budget films produced for the indie circuit and cable TV’s growing number of movie channels. (And increasingly, the Web.) The same digital technology that on a mammoth scale powers today’s superhero and sci-fi franchises is also making indie films increasingly affordable, Obst notes. Shooting digitally doesn’t require the expense of buying film stock, which allows for unlimited retakes of scenes. Digital allows a multitude of effects to be added in post-production, and errors airbrushed out. Editing can now be done much more quickly and easily on a computer than grinding on a Moviola. This is already having a dramatic impact on the industry, Obst writes:

With the onset of HD drastically reducing the costs of making independent movies, they can be made on a recently issued credit card, or long-saved Bar Mitzvah money, or by hustling friends or parents. This situation drastically diminishes the power of the “gatekeepers,” creates enormous opportunities for new distributors and opens the door to young talent via YouTube and other Internet outlets. We await filmdom’s Justin Bieber: Just as the savior of the music industry emerged from his home to the world via the Net overnight, our next Scorsese or Fincher is likely to be shooting something unimaginably cool on his or her family’s video camera that will pop up on YouTube and be instantly discovered the same way. It is inevitable.

We now have thousands upon thousands of tiny movies made on microbudgets, financed with personal credit cards. They are all vying to enter film festivals, and the very best of them will end up competing with studio films at Oscar time.

In “Hollywood Goes Bankrupt,” his own take on Obst’s book at Front Page, Ben Shapiro explores what the above passage means for conservatives wishing to break Hollywood’s ideological monopoly:

Everyone in Hollywood is liberal, until it comes time for them to work without pay. Then they’re downright Reaganesque. As less and less pictures get made, and more and more talented people go without work, the pool of labor gets ever larger. That means that actors who used to cost $500,000 per pictures will work for one tenth that. It means that writers with Oscars on their resumes can be had for a song. And it means that the liberal monopoly that controls Hollywood may be crashing down.

There is only one element of Hollywood that prevents this collapse: a monopoly on distribution. The distribution system in Hollywood is still upside-down, with distributors acting as gatekeepers for films. Most of these distributors are liberally-inclined politically, which means that they have no interest in conservative films. They’re profit-drive, sure, but they’re also used to working with a select clique of producers and directors and studios. They aren’t willing to take a risk.

But they can be paid to take a risk. And that’s where conservatives come in. With the means of production becoming ever-cheaper – it’s possible to make a movie that looks like a million bucks for about $100,000 – conservatives don’t have to expend tons of cash to get active in the artistic space. What’s more, they don’t have to build ground up – they can hire the same writers and directors who have been so successful in leveraging liberalism into great films.

Now is a horrible time to be the head of a movie studio. But it’s a great time to be a conservative looking to enter the movie market. All it requires for conservatives to make a serious play for the culture is a level of seriousness about the culture. Rather than sitting on the sidelines condemning the new flicks, it’s important to get involved in making flicks of our own – good movies, rather than politically-driven biopics. The market is shifting. And if conservatives have shown they are good at one thing, it’s taking advantage of market inefficiencies.

Peter Biskind’s 1997 book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls and accompanying documentary explored how the leftists who dominated Hollywood in the 1970s were able to crash the conservative studio system that preceded them. I doubt very much it was her intention, but in Sleepless in Hollywood, Lynda Obst has provided a roadmap for today’s conservatives to find their way in as well.

Who will break down the barriers first?

Update: “Mark my words,” Aaron Clarey writes, linking to our post above, on his Captain Capitalism blog, unlike today, where Ivy League students earn an MBA in “Film Studies” while going deeply into debt — “in the future the TRUE masterpieces and blockbusters will come from people who did NOT study the arts, but rather studied life and lived it.”

Which sounds very much like the people who originally built Hollywood out of sheer trial and error and experimentation — and equally importantly, their sheer love of storytelling on the big screen, and as a result, made far better movies than their much more credentialed but not educated successors.

(Artwork created using elements from Shutterstock.com.)

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Top Rated Comments   
There is a megastar who still has the box office power. He succeeds by choosing interesting stories and then telling them well. He is unique in that he is a huge star who also directs most of his films. He may do well because the does not give a thought to normal Hollywood motivations, in fact he goes in the opposite direction. His films come in under budget and he usually only does one take of any scene, expecting the other actors to know their lines. So, there is still room for a real star. Clint Eastwood. Keep the hits coming, Clint, you are the only one left who respects your audience.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
All Comments   (17)
All Comments   (17)
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All the more reason to support Declaration Entertainment! Bill Whittle may end up being the savior of American culture.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
It's all in the writing, or should I say the lack of it. Last night I watched "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn". How about "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" or "To Kill a Mockingbird". These are all classically written about people and how they interact with other people. That is what's missing in movies of the past few decades largely due to the lack of imagination of the more Liberal writers.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Are screens totally required to switch to digital? Is it feasible to have lower-budget films still on film? Say, however many copies, going from town to town? Africa has two different distribution systems: DVDs for locally made films, and screen-reels for European progressive films- made by, and watched by, Europeans in the colonies. They have two different sets of stars, studios, distribution methods, plot-lines, viewpoints, all of it. The local DVDs show Christian conversions and deliverances, and so on.

I mean, I was in New Orleans in the 80's, and there were black distribution films that were promoted and watched, and those were more known than studio films. Music, too. It was like a whole alternate universe. Wasn't Los Angeles like that, too? Small films tried out in LA, but only some made it to national distribution.

And, second, isn't there a whole publicity machine that selects "the action hero" movie star? Because, I can count a few films where Sam Worthington is in them, but he's not the main selling point of the advertising, but he's the main point that the person choosing the movie mentions. Maybe the publicists are getting old, too? They don't know who younger people like? My kids would go to a movie Sam Worthington opens, but not Tom Cruise.

And, well, you could do franchise-ish type things at a low budget, too. Twilight's first movie had a budget lower than a fast-food commercial run. The ensemble of actors were all pretty new, or low- budget, and they did a good job. Movies they've been in since then have had a "Twilight Collection" sticker on them- and I look twice at that DVD box, and skip the one next to it.I want to see what they do. They sort of have a 'brand'--romance, humanity, clean enough, americana- that I'm interested in whatever else they do. That's the side actors- not just the leads. That's easily a dozen actors who've established a beachhead as likeable, watchable, actors.

Twilight turned Summit from a cheap film shop to a big film studio, so getting it right is very, very profitable. They are doing more stuff with Stephenie Meyer- Austenland, for instance- that are in that sort of healthy romance way.

Seth Rogen and K Heigl did it with "knocked up." I'll at least see the advertisement, and I've totally watched movies with iffy advertising- just because I' think they are smart with their career and persona. "Zack and Miri Make a Porno" for instance. Mr Rogen was completely charming in what was supposed to be this festival of awful transgressiveness. I read later that he'd gotten the script cleaned up. The director? I wouldn't watch anything by him. He's terrible, even in interviews.

Like, Julia Roberts. Ouch. For reasons entirely unknown, she decided to trash her career and only play viciously unlikeable bad people. She was golden, in my book, and each of my friends' books. Now? She's just a bitchy old lady with a screwed up brain.

I'd think, with these lower budgets, it would be more like Silicon Valley- research and new stuff gets outsourced to small firms, and then the bigger firms would acquire the more successful ones for the next step.

Like, Indiana Jones? Well, why not more adventure movies that have something for the grownups, but that you can take your kids to see, without having a brain-ectomy to survive?
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
The reason the studios lack originality is two fold.
One, liberals not only lack originality, their ideas are all old, tired rehashes of stuff that has never worked, they lack the imagination and personal integrity to exam their premises and learn from the real world.

At least until we get to point two which is money! Liberals understand making money and that it is important to ultimately stay in business. The reason the top 10 movies of the past 4 decades have become progressively less original, is because the franchise and sequels make money. Below is the inflation adjusted gross of the top 10 movies listed in the chart in the article.
1981 - $2.7 billion
1991 - $2.6 billion
2001 - $3.3 Billion
2011 - $2.5 billion

2011 seems to have dipped but I'm convinced it is due to many of the factors laid out in the article dealing with the increasing competition from cable and internet alternatives.

I haven't gone to more than three movies at a theater in any year for the past two decades. When I do go, I choose carefully, reading reviews to insure that I don't waste my money on liberal propaganda, at least large, pabulum puking doses of it.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
There is another factor that will reinforce the distribution network as gatekeeper, but also help weaken the product sales.

Theaters are being required to convert to digital as they are apparently stopping distribution of film copies next year. Small town theaters cannot afford this. In my small town, there were a 4 plex and a single screen theater, both owned by a local businessman who definitely was/is a pillar of our community trying to bring us films we want. The cost of the conversion [well into 6 figures per screen] in the current economy is prohibitive. The 4 plex just closed and he is trying to keep the single screen open. If he fails, it is a 40-50 mile drive each way to the nearest movie theaters. And with one exception [quirky art house theater], they are all large corporate multiplex chains. Since they have control of the limited quantity of screens, only Hollywood dreck will be shown. But the odds of something being worth the drive being smaller, fewer people will make the effort.

If you add in the factor that Hollywood cares more for overseas ticket sales than American sales and aims films for an anti-American audience, they are in a downward spiral.

Until we have an economy [if ever again] that will allow new distribution channels to reach outside major cities, the new model will not happen.

Subotai Bahadur
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
"Studios now have more control over their product when stars are not involved."

"Product" is apt. Hollywood isn't about art anymore and most movie starts and even plots are interchangeable. Dumb it down so it translates to foreign audiences, make sure no culture or government objects and you can make it a "franchise" to milk more money out of it.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Interesting. Have you sat and watched many of these low-budget films? The 15-20 minute student-level film? Most of them are as liberal as anything Hollywood cranks out with lots of foul language, gratuitous violence and as much nudity and sex as a low budget filmmaker can tease out of actors they aren't paying. Part of my job is to do precisely this. Out of ten years of watching this sort of stuff, I have seen maybe 5-10 "good" student-level films if by good you mean 1) well-told story, 2) no gratuitous sex and violence that were added just to spice up a weak plot, and 3) a story arc that isn't just the main character moving from a weakly liberal position to a strong liberal position.

The collapse of the Hollywood system will only fuel other, cheaper industries elsewhere. When Ed is reduced to watching Chinese and Bollywood films ten years from now, or Mumblecore indie dreck ... Will we hear echoes of " do you miss me now ..."

1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I don't think indie films are in the same category as student films. As a young actress I was in student films and they were dreadful - I pity anyone who actually has to watch them. To me an indie is produced by a smaller company with a smaller budget, but many times they're much more sophisticated than the Hollywood over-produced extravaganzas with big names who can't act. Some, maybe even most, indies are self-indulgent and flawed, but some are also great and they keep me enjoying movies.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
There is a megastar who still has the box office power. He succeeds by choosing interesting stories and then telling them well. He is unique in that he is a huge star who also directs most of his films. He may do well because the does not give a thought to normal Hollywood motivations, in fact he goes in the opposite direction. His films come in under budget and he usually only does one take of any scene, expecting the other actors to know their lines. So, there is still room for a real star. Clint Eastwood. Keep the hits coming, Clint, you are the only one left who respects your audience.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
The big movie/music producers whine and threaten that piracy will kill these industries. I say burn, baby, burn. If the big studios go belly up tomorrow, what will we miss? Another overproduced noise and explosion fest? With absurd fight scenes that go on for 45 minutes? The big studios may be affected by piracy, but there will always be people who want to make films and there will always be people who record music. And these people will do it because they have something to say not because some MBA told them that they'll make a ton of money off the Asian market. Steal movies. Steal music. I bet that if movie makers were forced to work with budgets of $1 million versus $200 million, the end result would be more interesting movies.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
The indie films are a godsend to people like me who gave up on Hollywood product (I call it "product" because that's what it is, mass-produced, lowest common denominator junk, like candy bars and sugary drinks) decades ago. I comb through the films available through my Verizon movie package every morning and record what looks to be a possibility on my DRV. Some of these films I delete after a few minutes, some I watch and delete and some I love so much I keep and watch again. An example: Gone (2012), directed by Heitor Dhalia (a Brazillian), starring Amanda Seyfried. (wonderful performance). This film is of the best I've seen in awhile. The scripts of indie films are generally better written than the Hollywood product, possibly because the writers are more personally associated with their material.

I don't really understand what would constitute a conservative film. Liberal films are easy to define. They present a view of the world from a liberal political perspective and usually contain liberal (pun intended) doses of gratuitous sex and foul language. As noted above, lots of them are admiring bio-pics of progressive icons too numerous to mention. That may be a good starting place for conservatives to break ground. A real film about Ayn Rand as opposed to Helen Mirren's nasty portrayal. In fact, just about every recent film about conservative public figures should be re-made in a sympathetic light. Late 19th and early 20th century novels could provide another good source of material, such a the novels of Theodore Dreiser. Progressives have re-written history in their films, perhaps conservatives could begin to set the record straight in theirs.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
"Conservative film?" - how about Gran Torino, which told a great story, held up the value of family, respected the place of God in our culture and life, held bad guys to account, defended marriage, and recalled the former greatness of America as a manufacturer of great products. One great film, and zero recognition by the Academy. That is how you can ID a conservative film.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I thoroughly agree. Gran Torino is a gem. Clint Eastwood has the clout in Hollywood to make films like this and has been doing so for decades, but he's unique as are the films he does.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
The only drawback to that is that historical films are among the costliest to do right. Accurate costumes and sets can end up costing more than sci-fi special effects (see Les Miserables. No, really, see it!). A possible solution is updating for stories that can survive the process and still make sense. Recent examples: Atlas Shrugged and Much Ado about Nothing (Shakespeare and other classic plays, including opera, are GREAT for this, as long as your director isn't a maniac).
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Maybe a conservative film-maker should jump in and make the first film about the Zimmerman trial before someone like Oliver Stone can.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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