THIS YEAR IN the movies, we were treated with many an example of brilliantly crafted, intelligent, well-acted, engaging stories. From stellar, big-ticket items such as “Lincoln” and “Django Unchained” to smaller, sparkling gems such as “Blue Jasmine” “Frances Ha” and “Nebraska”. The best of 2013 did what we’d expect all great movies to do: they were immersive and engaging, suspending our disbelief thru nuanced, nicely written characters, realized by extraordinary actors; with flawless production values that perfectly matched their narratives: stories that offered human insight and philosophical depth.
And they managed to escape the dramatic influences that seem to be shaping much of movie making over the last few years. For we’re seeing two big trends, which are affecting how movie-makers – or the men with the money – are viewing their business: the decline in ticket sales and the lessening importance of the US market.
Don’t get me wrong, the US remains a power-house in terms of movie revenues. But its relative strength is declining (down from 35% of total global revenues to about 30%; and that’s in value. When you consider that ticket prices are a lot cheaper in Latin America and China, the percentages show that the US now accounts for at most a half of global sales). More disturbingly, despite monster sellers such as “Iron Man 3” (with worldwide grosses of $1.2B), 2013 saw yet another decline in (US) ticket sales, which are now at their lowest number since 1995.
So movie makers now have to be much more super-conscious of the international market, especially China, where movie-goers rose 35% in the last year, and they’ve got to find a way of arresting the declines – all of which are shaping movie content.
I think they’re three major reasons for the declines (in the US):
Video Games are clearly a fundamental and increasing threat. These immersive, communal, stunningly produced interactive entertainments are drawing those 25 year olds away from the increasingly costly inconvenience of going to the theatre, to the warm comfort of their couches. Movie-goers have become gamers. Only 10% of movie-goers account for 50% of the sales; and these are staying away in increasing numbers. Indeed, look at the numbers: The Avengers took in $1B in 19 days; Grand Theft Auto V took in $800M in 24 hours!
Fortunately, the dumbing down offered by video games is countered by the upsurge of stunningly executed TV dramas, driven by HBO, Showtime and a scatter of BBC and Nordic TV stations – from long form TV (those 8-12 week dramas such as “The Tunnel”, “Borgen” “Broadchurch” etc) to extended series such as “The Games of Thrones”, “Breaking Bad” and “Homeland”. The longer form of these intelligent dramas offer writers (or rather teams of writers) the opportunity to evolve characters, to allow plot asides that can explore multiple themes and issues, and to engage viewers with far greater resonance than, say the frothy content fillers such as “CSI” and “Two and a Half Men”. These dramas are as well-written as anything ‘quality’ movies have to offer; and with the likes of “…Thrones”, “Rome” and “The Tudors”, there’s no compromise in production values. Interestingly, the popularity of video games and the caliber of these dramas even seems to be affecting the caliber (and affordability) of our TV’s: the quality of the image we can now receive on TV equals pretty much anything the big screen can offer. So staying home is not a compromise to going out.
And then of course, there’s On-Demand viewing. Viewers have been trained to expect to view content when they want, where they want. The need to schlepp out into the cold to the local cinema-plex for a 6.40 show feels almost analog in a digital age.
And so, dear movies, quo vadis?
Well, the first and most obvious movie counter move is what I’ll call the Video Game-ization of the movies. More and more, Hollywood is placing its bets on the attraction of 3D and on big, dumb, thuggish action shows to out-gun the appeal of “Warcraft”, “Grand Theft” etc. What “Pacific Rim”, “Iron Man 3”, “Olympus Has Fallen”, “Thor, The Dark World” etc have in common isn’t merely the number and intensity of explosions and violent car crashes, but in an overall dumbing down. There’s an increasing homogenization of the lead characters and a death of ‘real sounding’ people.
The investment in big ticket superstars still seems to be a route to offering some sort of human dimension to the freneticism of action (which is why Robert Downey Jr is worth his salary, and which is why when producers cheap out on acting talent, as they did with “Pacific Rim”, there’s no talent to mask the inanity of the story). But it’s interesting to compare, say “Thor” (any of them will do) with, say “Independence Day”. The latter seem to have been filmed in a different era (as it was) when the director allowed (or was allowed) enough play in the story-line to offer viewers a cast of interesting characters. It wasn’t only Will Smith that ‘made’ this movie. Remember Jeff Goldblum’s nerdish scientist (the same part he played in “Jurassic Park”) or Judd Hirsch’s nebbish Jewish father or Harvey Fierstein’s fussy gay mother-dominated son or Randy Quaid’s drunk ex-Viet duster pilot? With “Thor”, we’re essentially treated to Chris Hemsworth’s muscles (One of the great discoveries in 2013 was “Rush” where we all learned that he can actually act and, say real words!). For, really, what else does a quasi video game movie need?
Video Game-ization is joined at the hip with the continuing trend of Franchization. Nobody wants to risk another “Lone Ranger” which lost maybe $100M, so it’s simply safer to bet on the tried and tested – which is why Dwayne –the Rock – Johnson was the top grossing actor in 2013 as he pumped even more testosterone into “The Fast and the Furious 6”. Of the top grossing movies in 2013, eight were franchises and most were Video Game-izers (“Iron Man”, “The Hunger Games”, “Despicable Me”, “Superman”, Fast and Furious”, “Star Trek”, “Thor”& “The Hobbit”). Expect to see more Wolverines, Thors, Batmans – soon to meet and beat Superman etc. (And thankfully, expect to see Bond 25; that’s right, 007 – the uber franchise – has been around for 24 outings)
But it’s important to segment Franchization into three ‘bits’: Moves such as “The Fast and the Furious” are simple repetitions of a formula set in different locations with marginal story changes. But movies such as the “Twilight” series, “Hunger Games”, the “Batman” trilogy, the “Bourne” trilogy etc. offer a slightly different twist on the franchise idea. In order to compete against the freedom of those “long-form TV shows”, we’re seeing more and more of these three and four part movie series. Some are simply really one movie drawn out into four, to maximize revenues – pretty much anything coming out of Middle Earth qualifies here – but many really do deliver powerfully in this longer form (the “Bourne” trilogy and “The Hunger Games” are the best of these, combining formidable acting talent, superb directing and cleverly crafted stories).
The third ‘bit’ of Franchization may not look like a typical franchise, but it hews to the same formula: a story-line that everyone basically knows with more or less well-liked stars. And this is the rom-com: boy meets girl under generally weird circumstances; they fall in love after a certain amount of childish bickering; their fledgling romance is interrupted by an event or a person FROM THE PAST; once this barrier has been overcome, true and lasting romance blooms. You pretty much know what to expect. These low-brow romances seem to have inserted themselves into a niche that TV, with its insatiable programming demand for volumes of consistent content (hence the success of “Friends” etc), can’t compete against: one-off two hour dramas with pretty and bland superstars such as Katherine Heigl and (sadly) Jennifer Anniston crafted to satisfy a Saturday afternoon, pop corn girlie group hunger. Sadly, disasters such as “About Time” won’t dampen this flabby, sappy genre.
At least those movies that fight against Video Games try to out-gun them on their terms: loud levels of visceral, dumb engagement. But there have been a few – disastrous – attempts to offer the same sort of exploding action sequences, but from a high concept perspective. It’s the Wall-E-iation of Sci Fi. “Oblivion” saw Tom Cruise emoting in that fake way of his in a failed attempt to inject some semblance of thought into video game action. The result was a disaster: “Oblivion” cost $120M to make (and probably another $50M to market) and earned a mere $90M in the US (But, to refer you to my point about the growth of the international markets, Tom’s more popular internationally, so there the movie earned a further $197M, which meant, in Hollywood terms, it barely broke even). Worse was Will Smith’s vanity project, “After Earth” which cost $120M to make and which raked in a poor $60M in the US (Like “Oblivion” the foreign market helped where it earned $180M).
Hollywood’s fight-back against stronger TV offerings, Video Game thrills and on-demand video has resulted in its pretty successful courtship of the over 50’s, that under-served demo that it suddenly discovered a few years ago. From “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” to this years’ offerings of Dustin Hoffman’s unsuccessful “Quartet” and Yaron Ziberman’s excellent “A Late Quartet” and Nicole Holofcener’s outstanding “Enough Said” with its credible – yikes, older – lovers (Julia Louis-Dreyfus and the late James Gandolfini), there’s a whole new, albeit niche, market opening up, with great casts and good writing. Thanks Video Games for making this possible.
Some movies are also beating the efficiencies of TV production costs and the thrills of video gaming by mass producing a growing list of schlock horrors that combine Franchization with cheapness: “Saw” “Paranormal Activity”, “The Final Destination” etc. The latest of the latter series cost $23M to make and yielded a gross return of $110M. This isn’t bad when you consider that these movies are in the volume business: churn ‘em out fast and cheap and reap the cumulative results. “The Final Destination” is interesting also from another dimension: its key director is Hong-Kong born James Wong. He represents the other trend that’s shaping the content of the movies nowadays: Sinization…or how much you need to cow tow to China’s censors to get your movie aired there.
China is BIG. It’s the second biggest movie market after the US; it added 4,500 new screens this year; and business, as I noted, was up 35%. That’s why David Cameron in his recent trade delegation to China included Amanda Neville and Ivo Dunleavy, the head honchos of BFI and Pinewood Studios. And why recently, Leo diCaprio, Kathleen Kennedy (Spielberg’s producer) and Harvey Weinstein flew over to court business there. The big wig in China is the China Film Co-Production Co. whose demands are simple: for any Western film to be shown in China, it must, as a basic rule, show positive images of China. But more importantly, those films that get the nod are those that feature Chinese actors, co-production financing and Chinese. This is shaping how the films are written: “Iron Man 3” was the biggest grossing movie in China this year. But the movie you saw isn’t the one the Chinese saw: there are 4 minutes extra and several re-edits that highlight Chinese characters. Tarantino recut “Django Unchained” for the Chinese market (they still didn’t love it and it bombed there). Will Smith’s hook-up with Jacky Chan was more profitable, resulting in a “Karate Kid” that featured a Japanese style of fighting in a gloriously beautiful Chinese world. “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor”, pretty much all set also in China, typifies this new and interesting trend. Indeed I think if Broccoli had to remake “You Only Live Twice” I’m sure he’d have set it in China, not Japan (though Japan to be fair, is also influencing the content of movies – check out this year’s “Wolverine” and Keanu Reeves’ new “47 Ronin”)
So, as you wait expectantly for next year’s new slate of movies, think upon them thru my lens of Video Game-ization (which includes 3D), Franchization, the Grey Market and the rise of China. And let’s look out for whatever new trends begin to emerge in 2014… at the movies