This is the first installment of my new series, Austin’s Soap Box. Each week, I explore a current topic in the entertainment world and pay too much attention to it.
Spielberg’s scariest film yet.
Recently, Steven Spielberg made headlines with some claims about the current and future state of the movie industry. In an address to USC students last month, Spielberg claimed that the “implosion of the movie industry is imminent.” I don’t know about you, but to me, that’s a bit unsettling. Let’s try to break this down. Spielberg claims that due to the amount of money being poured into big blockbusters, and with the commercial failure of some of these films, the industry’s producers will pull back drastically on the amount of films they make. Nobody can look at the summer releases over the last decade and not take note of the number of sequels, adaptations, reboots, etc., that are filling the theaters. Why are there seven Saw movies? Because it’s a tried and proven series that gives the studio money. Yes, film studios still buy and produce low-budget flicks to take a gamble on.
But they’re not going in blind. Let’s look at the Hangover film series. While the first film made household names of Bradley Cooper and Zach Galifianakis, they were already somewhat known. And director Todd Phillips was a successful, respected director in the R-rated comedy business. (If you haven’t seen Old School, I’m not sure we can be friends.)
But even with the few pieces in the puzzle, Warner Bros. only gave the film a $35 million budget. After a week, the movie grossed almost $72 million. By the end of its run, it had made $277 million. It is now the highest-grossing R-rated comedy of all time.
But what happened after that? WB had made more than their money back and made a critically and commercially successful film. The Hangover Part II had a budget of $80 million, and Part III had a budget of $103 million. Neither film would go on to make more than the original. And both were critically panned (not least by Stars & Popcorn). WB thought it could continue to find that level of success, but the magic of The Hangover was that it was new. We hadn’t seen it before. With the sequels, the audiences knew what was coming and why the films were made. And it wasn’t for artistic credibility; you can only surprise me once with a small Asian man jumping out of a trunk. The second time just seems sad.
But let’s look at a current example. Just last week, we saw the release of Roland Emmerich’s latest high-budget action-thriller, White House Down. In its first week in theaters, the film grossed $37 million. Not bad for a comedy or a low-budget horror film. But Emmerich’s film is estimated to have a budget of $190 million dollars. That’s quite a hit to take. It makes sense that studios are willing to give him that kind of money. With a career spanning over 20 years, he is considered the best at what he does. Nobody blows up buildings like he does (July 4, 1996 – Never Forget). For whatever reason, the film did not translate into a success.
When Spielberg says that the next revolution in Hollywood is coming, it makes sense. He lived through the last one. For those that don’t know, the 60s and 70s are considered the Silver Age of Hollywood. It was a time when directors, actors and writers were given autonomous control over their projects. The mindset of the studio heads was that the artists know what the audience wants. And now, we can look back at 20 years of amazing movies. We saw the birth of great franchises, like Star Wars, and high-budget art house pieces that would never get made today, such as 2001: A Space Odyssey. We saw George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, and Stanley Kubrick rule the silver screen with their bold new ideas. But this all came crashing down with a film called Heaven’s Gate directed by Michael Cimino.
Is it fair to blame one man and his film for the collapse of the film industry? No. Cimino is still considered a great artist, especially with his 1978 film, The Deer Hunter. But Heaven’s Gate did come to represent the changes instituted by studios on directors. The film earned $3 million with a $44 million budget. After this, studios became much more selective of the projects that they greenlit. Movies became a business first and artistic expression second. Ever since then, we’ve been stuck in that rut. Does that mean every movie made in the last 30-plus years is bad? Of course not.
So now it’s 2013, and Spielberg thinks he’s about to live through the next era of film. I tend to agree with him. I think we will see a larger gap between films made for art and films made for money. Art house films will see much smaller budgets, but with this comes more freedom. It’s a constrained freedom, but it’s still freedom. A director has the power to do more of what he wants when he doesn’t have to answer to studio heads. Giving an artist full artistic control is not always the best thing, as was seen with Cimino and Heaven’s Gate, but great movies will still be made. No matter what era we are in, there will still be great movies. We might have to pay more to see them, or work harder to track them down, but great movies will still be there always.