And why this isn’t a good thing for our culture – By Ben Warner.
The cultural impact of cinema has been waning for years. There was a time when films generated thought and discussion in their audience. Now, films are consumed and forgotten, while making billions in the process (and thus encouraging film studios to make more of these forgettable blockbusters). It’s an endless cycle, and unfortunately, there is no end in sight.
A case in point is the recent release The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. I went to see this yesterday, not out of any sense of excitement, but to dutifully finish off the trilogy. Peter Jackson had done such a spectacular job with The Lord Of The Rings trilogy, and I wanted to see how he was going to end this new slate of films based on Tolkien’s universe, even though the previous two Hobbit film entries were incredibly bloated and long-winded despite being well executed on a technical level. Following the screening, I immediately had the following thoughts:
- The film didn’t move me – at all
- There was no clear protagonist to get behind
- There was no sense of what the whole point of going on this journey was over three films, aside from setting up The Lord of the Rings films and giving us another excuse to go on a scenic tour of Middle Earth
- It was incredibly well executed from a technical standpoint – but completely bland. Or in other words, the film made me feel indifferent.
As a result, even as I was walking away from the cinema, I was already starting to forget what I saw. And that’s the problem with movies today and why they are so bad. They are extremely well executed on a technical level, but leave no impression whatsoever. They’re not bad movies in the classical sense, they just generate a feeling of indifference in the audience. And as far as I’m concerned, indifference is far worse than bad.
There is incredible technology that goes in to the making of films today. Absolutely anything is possible, and yet, the technology has not been used to create wider and more varied experiences that augment the heart and soul of story and character. Instead, studios have been using the technology to regurgitate the same soulless images and sequences over and over again. The Hobbit films are a great example of that. The new Hobbit film contains an extended battle sequence that is nothing short of spectacular; the only problem is that we’ve seen it already in the Lord of the Rings films.
Before the Hobbit film started, a brief teaser trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens from JJ Abrams was screened. It looked promising, much better than the prequels. However, I experienced similar feelings from the trailer as I did with the Hobbit film that followed. Star Wars is done – I don’t need to see any more. More than anything, I thought: “Where are the ‘Star Wars’ type movies of today that can break fresh, new ground and change what we know about movies and how they are made?”
A few years ago, I wrote an article titled “Hollywood’s Dwindling Audiences.” I thought it would be good to revisit this post in light of the current state of play in Hollywood (I’ve re-posted it below). The only point I would like to add to this post is that films have all but lost their cultural impact. Films are by and large not discussed any more in the wider culture, because they don’t inspire and move people, aside from people like me complaining about the fact that they don’t inspire and move people! This is a bad thing for our culture, unless you consider the notion that inspirational content has moved to television and the internet. Unfortunately with these mediums, you miss out on the “group experience” that is cinema, sitting in the dark with a group of strangers and sharing the emotions and ideas being presented by intelligent and talented filmmakers. No other medium can do this, and unless something dramatic happens in the making of blockbusters, it won’t be coming back any time soon.
As for me, I might not even go to the cinema next year. I might just load up on the latest television series, especially with Netflix due to hit Australia in March next year, and start binge-watching episodes at home. At least I know I’ll get some quality storytelling.
HOLLYWOOD’S DWINDLING AUDIENCES
Originally published on 4th July 2012
This post, along with many others, is available in the eBook “The FiST Report” at www.fistreport.com.
The corporatisation of Hollywood has led to the gradual disengagement from art and showmanship in the movies they produce. If you look at the slate of films released today, even compared with a decade ago, much of the freshness and originality is absent. Even basic elements of pace and building drama has been replaced by music video style cutting and a lack of attention to plot drivers and character motivation; why bother with these when the audience can be distracted by fast cutting, cool music, relentless CGI and stuff exploding?
In their relentless chase for ticket sales, Hollywood has been focusing more and more on the only demographic that they believe will achieve the greatest returns: 14-25 year old males who rabidly go see films they like multiple times. Arguably, this has fuelled the unstoppable rise of the comic book genre (as an example), but it has been at the expense of so many other genres.
You can’t blame Hollywood executives in some respect. Films are products they are trying to flog to the masses. They don’t care what it’s about; all they care about is how much they sell. However, it is this precise drive to generate more profit that is seeing more audiences turning away from Hollywood product. Nowhere near as many people go to see films as they used to, and it’s because of a lack of variety and substance in the films showing in cineplexes today. Hence, Hollywood’s dwindling audiences!
To be fair, some of the big Hollywood films are good. “The Avengers”, although very noisy, was well told and has some fun character moments. Nolan’s Batman trilogy, and I’m confident enough to include the upcoming “The Dark Knight Rises” in this, is nothing short of sublime. And James Cameron made a huge splash, as he usually does, with “Avatar”. These films represent what the majority of Hollywood films should be.
Although you can’t expect all films to be great, there is really no excuse for Hollywood not to make good films considering how many resources they throw at them; or perhaps that’s the problem. So much money is infused in the system now that executives and filmmakers may have forgotten the basics. If you get paid thirty million to direct a film and it makes a lot of money, who cares if you do a great job as long as you get the job done? And if you’re an executive, why would you risk money on a film with an unproven concept in the market when there are so many market-proven franchises that can be remade and exploited? In this respect, the trajectory of films today are not unlike the sale of any other product; make, sell and repeat. With this focus, artistic integrity is a laughable and pointless endeavour.
The quality of the films also deserves to be scrutinised from a historical perspective. Back in the late 1970s when films like “Star Wars” and “Alien” were released to record box office results (or any of Spielberg’s early blockbusters), it is often overlooked that critical response was mixed to negative. In the case of “Star Wars”, the film is often cited as the beginning of the end of “real” cinema. It trivialised the notion of what a film was, the story wasn’t considered deep or strong in any way, and the acting was subpar. The revolutionary special effects, music and sound, although spectacular, were just window dressing. This reaction is most likely to have been based on a comparison to films of the past, and in this respect, earlier Hollywood films had far more substance.
Flash forward to today and the original “Star Wars” might as well be a literary masterpiece. It has story, character, action, visuals and great pacing. Amazing! If only today’s films had that! What will happen thirty years from now? Will the films of today be considered masterpieces? I suspect by then that drastic changes would have occurred to the industry. The spiraling cost of films and dwindling returns will ultimately force Hollywood to think differently about how it produces its films. It is quite ridiculous that Hollywood could produce a half-billion dollar earner in the 1980s on a budget of ten million dollars, and make a great film, while they would need at least two hundred million dollars today to have a hope of achieving the same return. And when you price inflation in to the equation, the resulting profit becomes even less impressive.
To paraphrase Larry The Liquidator from “Other People’s Money”, if you want to see your investment take a dive, aim for an increasing share of a shrinking market: “Down the tubes!” In Hollywood’s case, the shrinking market is its audience. Unlike the market however, Hollywood can expand its audiences. It just has to give it a shot. There will be risk involved, and some losses, but the long term gains will be far greater. Simultaneously, this process will ensure the longevity of the business Hollywood is in.
I feel like I’ve been beating the drum on this for a long time but it deserves to keep being said. Hollywood needs to re-engage with its audiences and display some showmanship. I love films, and I love them the most when they bring together all the important elements that make them such exciting, visceral experiences that no other art form can create. I hope they will do this one day, but I’m not hopeful given that big corporations own and are running the industry. History has shown that aside from a few notable exceptions, films have been on a downward spiral of quality for decades, with a sharp increase in this spiral in the last five years. Only a massive shock to their business model and profits is going to shake them out of this pattern. Before this happens however, finding the good films will be akin to finding a needle in a haystack.