There’s been a lot of talk lately about the decline of Hollywood and American film as a whole. Everything these days is a reimagining or a reboot or a remake. Hollywood has become a seemingly infinite feedback loop regurgitating copies of copies of copies. This is a refrain we’ve heard for a while now. This is nothing new. But what may be new to you are the reasons why. How did we find ourselves in the land of the “re”?
First of all, if you haven’t read or watched it already, definitely check out Steven Soderbergh’s keynote speech at the San Francisco International Film Festival on the state of cinema. He goes into great detail about the answer to our question.
Specifically, he outlines how the major studios figured that it’s only worthwhile to produce and release big, bloated, action-packed tentpole movies rather than smaller, cheaper, more personal films. The math of it all is a bit confounding but I’ll attempt an oversimplification of the major issues plaguing Hollywood today.
First, due to the studios’ deals with exhibitors, a movie needs to gross double its cost (which includes the film’s budget and marketing costs) just to break even. So, for instance, this summer’s first big hit “Iron Man 3” cost $200 million to make and another $175 million to publicize, which brings its price tag to a grand total of $375 million. Just to stay out of the red, "Iron Man 3" needed to gross $750 million. But as of June 10th, the third installment in the "Iron Man" series has made almost $1.2 billion worldwide. It’s a hit.
On the other hand, with a $20 million film, a studio might spend $50 million on advertising. It seems like a ton for publicity (and it is) but spending boatloads of money on ads is one of the few ways studios can attempt to control a volatile marketplace. Now, this movie needs to make $140 million to be in the black and that would be a hell of a number for a $20 million film. So you can see how, in the eyes of the studios, it makes sense to stick to the big blockbusters and only the big blockbusters.
But what’s odd here is, in America, "Iron Man 3" has only grossed $394 million thus far. The other two-thirds of its gross have come from foreign box offices. And herein lies the most prevalent threat to Hollywood film. As a general rule, big event films garner 70 percent of their money overseas and only 30 percent at home.
This is a problem because so-called American films now must pander to international audiences, specifically those of China and Russia. According to Maureen Callahan of the New York Post, “What travels best [are] movies with minimal dialogue, little cultural specificity, and spectacular special effects.”
The economics on display here pigeonhole these films in terms of genre too; action and sci-fi films translate best overseas. What’s more, due to the massive budgets of these movies, you are bound to have homogeneous, safe, simple films that tend to appeal to the widest possible audience and the lowest common denominator in order to turn a profit.
So what does that spell for major motion pictures in the foreseeable future? A lot of overwrought, dumb, sci-fi and superhero movies with incoherent plotlines and one-dimensional characters. Retreads of movies and characters we’ve already seen based on pre-existing properties (i.e Angry Birds, The Ouija Board) we already don’t care about.
Now, all of this doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. Under this system, Christopher Nolan made his excellent Batman films and word on the street is that “Man of Steel” is gold. But aside from Nolan’s productions (he produced “Man of Steel”), trouble is brewing overseas. The real danger is that currently in China, there are import quotas that limit the number of American films that can be shown to 21 films a year.
However, by co-producing films with Chinese companies, the studios are getting around these restrictions and tapping into the Chinese market. These deals, like the one that helped spawn “Iron Man 3”, are essentially deals with the devil.
International politics aside, the "Iron Man 3" deal gave the Chinese government script approval as well as resulted in altered, China-specific content within the film. All in all, this is artistic compromise on an unprecedented scale. The studios have sold their souls, what was left of them anyway, to plunder untold riches in the east.
Now, how does this affect you, the average member of Generation Y? You probably love these giant blockbusters. Hell, I know I do; I’ll be the first guy in line to see “Man of Steel” as well as “The Wolverine” and “Pacific Rim.” So what’s the real cost here? What’s really at stake?
In one of the most widely consumed forms of mass media, there is and will be no rallying cry for this generation to band together. There’s no cultural glue. There are no apt or challenging representations of ourselves. Every character becomes a mass-produced, chemically bleached piece of white bread.
There are no heroes or symbols to march out as our own. Iron Man and Batman don’t count; they’re not just ours, they belong to every generation: past, present, and future. Plus, they’re protectors of the status quo, not invested in shaking things up but restoring things to the way they once were.
But maybe we’re not looking for a cause at the cinema. And maybe we don’t want to be challenged. Living in the real world is challenging enough. “Just let me get high, eat my popcorn, and watch shit blow up,” you say. And I say, “Be my guest!” That’ll probably be my mentality going into most of these flicks.
Still though, there is something more fundamental being lost here. What I’m talking about is the loss of a common language, of a cultural shorthand, and of a specific yet collective experience.
For example, when you talk to someone at a bar or a party and they’re into the same weird, small, niche movie as you, that’s automatic validation on both sides. Or at least a great conversation starter: “You like ‘High Fidelity’. I like ‘High Fidelity’. Let’s hang out and talk more about ‘High Fidelity’.” Simply put, it’s a cultural shortcut.
It’s a bonding experience in which the two parties never had to previously be together to now share. (It’s also a great fucking movie that with its R rating, moral ambiguity, and $30 million price point would never get made today).
On the other hand, talking about “The Dark Knight” doesn’t make you special or interesting or someone with whom I feel the need to have a conversation. Everyone loves that movie and almost everyone has seen it. You might as well be talking about sliced cheese or fireworks. Yet, "The Dark Knights" of the world will continue to be made whereas the High Fidelities will not.
Now, think about the iconic films from the past about youth and youth culture in America. “Rebel Without a Cause,” “Easy Rider,” “Dazed and Confused,” “The Breakfast Club”, etc. etc. These are all films that have essentially codified youth for their specific generation and the generations that followed.
When I look back on my youth, I think about the first times, the heartbreaks, the ignorance, and the fleeting bliss. But if I’m being honest with myself, I remember Wooderson from “Dazed and Confused” or the Smurf monologue from “Donnie Darko” way more clearly and fondly than most of my high school career. You may think that’s sad but I think it’s a testament to the impact these films had on me, to the way they shaped me in my youth. In a way, they were my youth.
And that’s what’s at stake: the embodiment and expression of youth culture.
What’s sad is to realize that, in all likelihood, none of these films could be made today, at least not by a studio. None of these films would travel well to foreign markets. They’re too culturally and temporally specific. They’re too American.
But in this country, these films allow me to connect with a vast array of people, especially those within my generation. We can talk about how many times we watched “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” or toss around references to “Superbad” without skipping a beat (“Good shit, right Miroki?”). Films, especially those made for and about the youth, become a common language that kids from the heartland and the coasts all speak. This sort of pre-Babelian language is what we stand to lose, what we are in the process of losing.
If all our movies become commercials for Google or Chinese travelogues, what common language will we share? What inside jokes can we have with total strangers? How much harder will it be to relate to one another, to find cultural common ground? And how will our youth be formed and defined for generations to come? I hope not as cape-wearing Chinese propagandists who intern for Google.
Adam Pliskin | Elite.
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