Hollywood is in a prolonged state of crisis. Everybody knows this. Studios pump out a seemingly endless supply of sequels, spin-offs, remakes, reboots, and films otherwise based on any and all previously existing intellectual property, all of which invariably cost upwards of 100 million dollars. We call them tentpole films, because they’re supposed to be sure-fire bets that can make enough money to finance smaller, riskier projects across the studio’s slate, like tentpoles upholding a tent. The problem is that there is no tent. There’s just masses and masses of poles, sticking upright in a field, and we’re all so used to getting wet that we’re more likely to ask for the poles to be more interesting than ask for some tarp.
There have been sequels, spin-offs and remakes as long as there have been films. A lot of them are great – His Girl Friday, the Charlton Heston Ben-Hur, The Departed, True Grit (2010), The Godfather Part II, The Empire Strikes Back, T2: Judgment Day – but things have never been quite like they are now. The Hollywood calendar is dominated by franchises and would-be franchises based on just about anything they think the audience might recognise, from an endless number of superhero movies to every TV show from the 1990s to random crap like emojis or Play-Doh (seriously – Paul Feig is directing it). A film like Star Wars (1977) could never be made now – they’re too busy making at least one Star Wars film a year until the sun explodes, even though Star Wars is a tiny universe built to tell a hero’s journey in space and has never successfully done anything else.
It’s not that tentpole films are all bad. I like plenty of them. The problem is the bland sameness: the problem is every Marvel superhero film that I’ve watched and enjoyed just fine and then completely forgotten immediately. There are excellent tentpole films and terrible ones, but mostly they’re something pleasurable but hollow, something that runs right through you. They’re designed to be that way, which is why so many of them are directed by young, inexperienced directors that are easier for the studios to push around, or why directors who assert a vision are so often fired (Edgar Wright from Ant-Man, Phil Lord and Chris Miller from the Han Solo movie) or have their film substantially changed in reshoots and editing (Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four was meant to be a Cronenberg body horror, Warner Brothers hired a trailer house to edit Suicide Squad).
“Tentpole movies in general, they are not movies, generally,” says James Mangold, “they are bloated exercises in two-hour trailers for another movie they are going to sell you in two years.” Mangold directed this year’s Logan, a superhero tentpole film that, in effusive praise, I have often called “a real movie.”
If every film is an advertisement for the next instalment, and you can never stop pumping out instalments as long as the public keeps paying to see them, then characters can never grow or change, not in a way that means anything. All that’s left is action, which is, more often than not, a CGI nightmare that goes on for far too long.
So studios make fewer films, putting more and more eggs in a handful of big-budget baskets, and mostly only make the mid-budget fare that was once the backbone of Hollywood around awards season – meanwhile, there are more and more independent films struggling for a smaller and smaller piece of the pie.
It’s a phenomenon that RedLetterMedia eloquently dubbed “Fuck You, It’s Forever!”:
Everyone knows that Hollywood is in a prolonged state of crisis, but there can be a weird stigma against wanting to fix it. From critics sneering at the idea of limiting your film-viewing to your “local multiplex” to the apathetic what-else-would-you-expect shrugs, we’re just supposed to accept that this is the way things are, that this is all popular cinema is or can be. We have always been at war with Eastasia.
But The Godfather, a film famous for being slow-moving and long and indisputably one of the best ever made, was the highest grossing film of 1972. A glance through the highest grossing films of all time adjusted for inflation shows a list which is hugely varied in genre and style:
People often point to the late 1970s and 1980s as the genesis of the tentpole problem, but the giant blockbusters of that era were unlike anything being made today. Films like Star Wars weren’t safe bets, banking on your familiarity with their pre-existing intellectual property – Star Wars had a famously troubled production because it wasn’t a safe bet. Steven Spielberg, father of the modern blockbuster, made Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark and ET: the Extra-Terrestrial – well-crafted, populist masterpieces – and I find it hard to imagine a studio backing those films now, or at least, not backing them to be major blockbuster releases. If some guy from Saturday Night Live wrote Ghostbusters today, it would only get made as a weird little indie film. Back to the Future wouldn’t get made at all.
“Half my movies wouldn’t get made today,” John Landis said, “Not in a million years would a studio make The Blues Brothers.”
In 1980, The Blues Brothers grossed 115.2 million dollars against a 30 million dollar budget.
The actual turning point is during the 1990s. In the 1980s, the highest grossing film of a given year could be action-adventure (the Indiana Jones films), or anything from Rain Man (drama) to Fatal Attraction (erotic thriller) to Back to the Future (time-travelling romantic teen comedy). During the 1990s, there was a shift towards pretty much all highest grossing films being franchise action films and animated films for children. The idea that only franchise action films and children’s animated films can be mega-hits is, in the history of cinema, super new, and something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Maybe in the 1990s the public just got really into exactly two kinds of films to the neglect of all else. But Hollywood doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and something incredibly important happened at the end of the 1980s that changed Hollywood filmmaking in a way that we’re still feeling the effects of today: the corporate buyout of film studios.
Sony bought Columbia Pictures in 1989. News Corp bought 20th Century Fox. Viacom bought Paramount. Warner Brothers merged with Time Inc to become Time Warner, the world’s third biggest media conglomerate. In second place is Disney, and first is Comcast, which owns Universal Pictures. In 1983, ninety percent of the media was owned by the fifty largest corporations. Now, ninety percent of media is owned by just six corporations.
Filmmaking has always been a money-making business. But in the 1990s, it went from being the main output of a company to being a tiny part of a global conglomerate. “You’ve got people who don’t know movies and don’t watch movies for pleasure deciding what movie you’re going to be allowed to make,” director Steven Soderbergh said in 2013. If you were an executive at a film studio in the 1970s, you were focused on turning a profit, but you were also probably in the movie business for a reason – not just that you were transferred from General Electric.
“They’re going for the gold, but that isn’t going to work forever. And as a result they’re getting narrower and narrower in their focus,” George Lucas said, when discussing with Steven Spielberg how studios would rather spend 250 million dollars on a single film than make several smaller, more personal projects, “People are going to get tired of it. They’re not going to know how to do anything else.”
There’s an old interview with Martin Scorsese and Conan O’Brien where Conan O’Brien says about Titanic, which was at the time the most expensive film ever made, “One of the reasons I went to see the movie was to see someone spend 200 million dollars. If the movie had been a guy in a room, burning 200 million dollars, I’d have watched for three hours.”
Captain America: Civil War had a budget of 250 million dollars. It’s a superhero movie, and I enjoyed it just fine, but it’s neither much of an emotional experience or technically innovative or even particularly good at action. Even the much-praised airport fight scene seems so bland next to the stairwell fight in Atomic Blonde, a film that is basically okay but doesn’t make any sense. For the price of a Captain America: Civil War, you could make eight La La Lands, a Cinemascope musical starring genuine movie stars, and have enough left over for two and a half Moonlights. Hell, you could make Moonlight ten times over on Robert Downey Jr.’s salary alone.
But the studios would rather gross over a billion dollars on a 250 million dollar movie (which Civil War did) than make eight 30 million dollar movies that could gross over 440 million dollars each (which La La Land did). And if you want to make a billion dollars, your film has to open in China.
The growth of the international market – and the Chinese market in particular – has had a huge effect on Hollywood films. Dialogue-driven films about particularly American experiences – or particularly American looks at universal experiences – just don’t translate as well as explosions, so we don’t get Westerns, weepies or teen movies anymore. More and more American films are explicitly catered to a Chinese audience, from the inclusion of prominent Asian characters in Rogue One after Star Wars: The Force Awakens didn’t do as well in China as Disney hoped, to special Chinese edits of films like the remake of The Karate Kid – to take out the bullying by Chinese kids and render the film incomprehensible.
Acknowledging international audiences isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but because Hollywood is, to a large degree, relying on the Chinese market, they have to bend to the will of not only Chinese audiences, but the Chinese government. The Chinese government has bans on films involving things like ghosts or time-travel – and of depictions of LGBT people, which is why all of the “gay moments” in recent blockbusters have turned out to be basically nothing. Disney apologised to the Chinese government for having released Martin Scorsese’s beautiful 1997 film about Tibet, Kundun, so that they could get permission to open Disneyland in Shanghai.
Whenever the tentpole problem is discussed, we’re always told to vote with our wallets. If we stop paying to see bad movies, they’ll have to stop making them!
But it doesn’t work that way. No individual consumer has that much power over a market. No collection of consumers all buying things as individuals has that much power over a market. Even if my power as a consumer was worth anything, I can’t know if a film is the kind I want to support until after I’ve seen it, and even then, studios consistently take the wrong lessons from any given film’s success: like the reason people liked The Matrix was the slow-motion and speed up effects, or that the reason people like the Bourne films was choppily edited, confusing action. But mostly, if you live outside of a city, your choice of films is severely limited. My hometown pretty much exclusively shows tentpole films, so how can anyone living there vote with their wallet? But even if we were talking about some kind of organised mass-boycott across the English-speaking world – which is both a generous interpretation of “vote with your wallet” and logistically impossible – these films could still make money if they do well enough in China. I try to pay to see the kinds of films that I want to see continue getting made, but in a world where a film is declared a flop or a hit within hours of its release, I’d be kidding myself if I thought that my seven Euro ticket made a difference.
There’s only one thing that can save the movies, and I know it can work because it’s worked before: antitrust law.
The current tentpole franchise filmmaking era is often compared to the studio system that dominated Hollywood from the 1920s to the 1950s: where the studio system relied on stars under long-term contracts, the modern studios rely on the ownership of intellectual property. Disney owns Marvel, Star Wars, Pixar, the Muppets and, of course, their own back-catalogue, which they’ve decided to steadily adapt to live action on the premise of “what if the same, but worse.” They also own the ABC and ESPN television networks, and essentially employ a huge number of YouTube creators as Maker Studios – which for some reason never got mentioned as being weird or insidious even when it was part of a major news story after Disney dropped PewDiePie for antisemitic “jokes”.
Disney is too big to fail, and it’s only the second biggest media conglomerate in the world. The conglomerates that own the Hollywood studios should be broken up.
In the era of the studio system, the major Hollywood studios not only kept creative personnel like actors under long-term contract, but also dominated exhibition, by owning the cinema chains and using manipulative sales practices like block booking – where the theatre would have to buy a studio’s entire slate for exhibition blind, or not be allowed to buy any of the films individually. The studios had a vertical monopoly on films, controlling every stage in the supply chain.
What brought the studio system to an end was not the force of market demand, because the market didn’t have much of an option to vote with their wallet – if they did, it wouldn’t be a monopoly. Not going to the cinema wouldn’t make the studios think they should divest from theatre chains or give their stars more flexible contracts; not going to the cinema doesn’t send a nuanced message. The studio system was ended by the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890.
In the 1948 case United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc., the United States Supreme Court ruled that the major Hollywood studios would have to divest from theatre chains, no longer practise block booking, and no longer discriminate against smaller, independent theatres. This was the first nail in the studio system’s coffin.
An influx of independent and foreign films chipped away at the Production Code (commonly called the Hayes Code) which had forbidden depicting certain things on screen on the basis of morality: films made during the Hayes Code weren’t allowed show married couples sleeping in the same bed, for example. By the 1960s, films were starting to change utterly: in 1960, Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, a black-and-white romantic comedy in which Jack Lemmon’s character lets his bosses use his apartment to bring girls, was scandalous. Just seven years later, The Graduate was the highest grossing film of the year, “Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me” and all. (We’ve spent longer than that watching Robert Downey Jr. play Iron Man.)
Starting in the late 1960s, inspired by the financial success of films like The Graduate and Easy Rider, Hollywood studios starting letting young directors make weird, personal films with minimal interference. The Godfather, The Exorcist and Blazing Saddles all topped the box office, films that are nothing alike apart from being excellent. The studios were as interested in making money as ever, but they got this crazy idea that people would be more likely to pay to see a film if it was good.
Meanwhile in Washington, the robust antitrust law that had served the United States well for decades was being slowly chipped away. Since 1890, preventing monopolies had been one of a handful of truly bipartisan issues: the right realised they needed to ensure competition for capitalism to function, and the left was opposed to big business as well. But suddenly, the purpose of antitrust law was reimagined from protecting small businesses from being crushed by monopolies to being about protecting consumers from price fixing. The trouble is, showing that a corporate merger will harm consumers is a much higher burden of proof. This shift meant going from “simple rules of thumb [to] hellishly complex calculations of consumer welfare,” Ryan Cooper writes, “Rules like ‘every major market must have at least five serious competitors’ or ‘no company can acquire more than a 20 percent national market share’ can’t be justified as being the best of all possible worlds (because nothing can), but they are easy to understand and enforce.”
By the 1990s, Bill Clinton was repealing Glass-Steagall, legislation which since 1933 had forbidden commercial and investment banks from merging – a repeal that is widely considered to have helped cause the 2008 financial crisis. Right when the corporate conglomerates were buying the film studios, the United States government had decided that it didn’t care.
The death of American antitrust law has been awful all-round: the banks that were too big to fail in 2008 are now almost twice the size, the Exxon-Mobil merger reversed the break-up of Standard Oil, and the failure of Obamacare to provide a public option has guaranteed a private monopoly on health insurance in several states. The world’s largest search engine directs people to the world’s largest video site which runs ads from the world’s largest ad agency, all brought to you by the good people at Google (they’ve dropped their famous “don’t be evil” motto). The film industry might seem like small fry in comparison, but that just goes to show how distorted our sense of scale is.
If we break up the conglomerates – Disney, Comcast, Time Warner, Viacom, Sony – and allow film studios to be film studios again, tentpole franchise filmmaking will collapse. If a studio doesn’t have enough money to put 250 million dollars in one basket, they won’t be making films that need to gross a billion dollars to be worthwhile. They’ll be able to make smaller, more personal, more interesting films that don’t rely on a strong opening in China. They’ll end up taking more risks – because the risk will be spread around more. Spending 250 million dollars in the hopes of grossing a billion is something only an impossibly large multinational corporation can afford to do.
Because a break-up would divide studio assets, any given studio would have less intellectual property. This would limit the number of films they could make based on pre-existing material, and buying up more intellectual property would be limited by the studios’ smaller sizes. Cost alone would force the studios to make more original projects – just like they used to, for decades.
There would still be bad films – there have been bad films as long as there have been films. But there’ll be less soulless crap. Studios will make more good films, and more importantly, more good films will get a wide release. You won’t need to live in a city to see an ordinary human drama.
I have a lot of wacky left-wing opinions, but this isn’t one of them. For capitalism to have any of its supposed benefits, it needs to be regulated. A completely unregulated market can’t function as a market. It’s cool at the moment to claim that a market can self-regulate – see Uber or AirBnB – but that isn’t true. Governments brought in regulations around taxis or hotels for a reason: to protect ordinary people like you and me from faceless companies. If a giant, faceless company tells you, all excited, that they’ve found a way around those regulations, around things like licenses or insurance or workers’ rights, they’re only excited about all the money they stand to make.
Films are a business, but they’re also art. Films are consumer products, but it bothers me when they’re talked about purely as products: when discussions about films as films, and not about economies, use words like “property” and “franchise”. The art of film is something beautiful and special that I’m terrified of becoming niche or exclusive: like how the working class once loved opera or Shakespeare. The collective eye-rolling at Christopher Nolan saying he wanted his films to be released to cinemas chilled me to the bone – because the cinema is where films belong, and if you think that’s elitist, you should want to make cinemas more affordable, not encourage them to stop showing creative, original films.
Art is a key part of human life, a basic bedrock of humanity for everyone, not just a privileged few. As long as humans have existed we have told each other stories, sang each other songs, drawn pictures on the walls of caves. Films are art, and so the film business should be regulated in the interests of the people. Giant conglomerates deciding what films get made, while squeezing out the independent sector, is not in anyone’s interests but the CEO’s. But hell, I’ll even throw them a bone: the break-up of Standard Oil made John D. Rockefeller the richest man to ever live.
Hollywood only changes when its hand is forced. Something is broken, and if the market won’t fix it, we’ll fix the market.