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Back to the drawing board

Maybe mankind, even in these dumbed-down days, can take only so much dreck. That, in my ‘umble opinion, is one lesson we can reasonably draw from figures showing a fall in the sales of Hollywood-made movies in north America. Yes, Lord of the Rings 3, Finding Nemo and some others have proven a big hit, but all too often the formula of big action movie has proven a dud.

Of course, certain factors are involved here. Remaking comic strips into films is bound, after the early flurry of excitement, to leave audiences cold. DVD sales and rentals may also be playing a part, though heaven knows it is difficult to work out if there is a direct cause and effect.

I would be willing to bet, though, that one factor which Hollywood film executives are missing is the changing demographic profile of our culture. All too many films are still pitched at teens and twentysomethings, but surely as populations age, as they are in parts of the West, film producers need to take account of a more mature audience.

The Peter Weir historical drama movie, Master and Commander, starring Russell Crowe and based on two seafaring novels by the late Patrick O’Brien, was my favourite of the year, and much better than I had come to expect of literary screen adaptations. It has not shot the lights out at the box office, but deserved to do so.

Or maybe films made in Asia and elsewhere are going to pick up the slack from Hollywood over the long term. We live in interesting times.

15 comments to Back to the drawing board

  • Johnathan,

    The Lord of the Rings was filmed in New Zealand, the music was done at Abbey Road Studios, only the money came from Hollywood. Finding Nemo was made in the Bay Area, although the actors were recorded in Hollywood, the film is not part of that culture. Your key point is made stronger by these facts, but you could have picked better exceptions to illuminate your rule.

    Hollywood appears headed for the same fate as Detroit, for pretty much the same reason; quality of product. High priced lemons just don’t sell like they used to, of course it is also true that they didn’t suck as bad as they do now.

  • ernest young

    ‘Master and Commander’, terrific film, plenty of real action, not the “Matrix’ engineered stuff, (always seems too much like disco lights, and just about as confusing), authentic scenarios, and reasonably good acting. A nice balanced mix, which I enjoyed.

    Another terrific film, is ‘The Last Samurai’, story line a trifle thin, but with all the ingredients for an good evening’s entertainment.

    Just love a good swashbuckling tale, filmed in style, with attention to detail, but then I am quite a bit past being a teenager.

    By the way, thought the LOTR – ‘Return of the King’, was an expensively produced pre-teen fairy tale, but worst crime of all – it was boring….I now know that the Hobbits of Middle Earth, grew to become the ‘Tele Tubbies’, they even live in the same house….

  • Quentin

    I felt that Master and Commander should have been half an hour longer with another battle in the middle. It just plodded.

  • Hollywood has had a shocking year. Mostly awful films, and financially they would have taken a bath, except that DVD revenues have expanded by more than people were expecting. We will see what happens next year. (My overview of the holiday / end of year movie season will be up on Samizdata in a few days, by the way).

  • Bernie Greene

    I’m not a great fan of LOTR, apart from the terrific pipe smoking scenes, but I appreciate how well made the series is. It was also kept pretty close to the actual story and most importantly there was a story.

    I think there are probably focus groups and surveys that aren’t asking the right questions. They come up with answers like “lots of battle scenes with attention to detail of blood and gore” but they neglect the context in which these scenes might occur. There still has to be a story and there still needs to be a reason to care about what is going on.

    A prime and probably classic example of neglecting those points was Battlefield Earth of a few years ago. Having read the book many years earlier I was greatly looking forward to the screen version. I expect those who had read the book were the most disappointed. There was lots of action and noise in the movie and a few interesting effects. They just neglected to let any part of the story make it to the script.

  • ed

    Changing demographics is probably a major reason. Another is the Hollywood habit of combining past hit films into bizzare new combinations. Frankly I’m breathlessly awaiting the “Nemo: The Return of the Last Master Samurai King of the Matrix” in a year or so. Personally the problem is that filmmakers have subsituted special effects and CGI for a good story. This isn’t a new trend by any means but it seems to get worse every year and perhaps we’ve hit a crest where more is just not working.

    Even a good story doesn’t necessarily mean anything now. It seems that most of the recent hits have been based on successful literature or stories by accomplished authors. Even at that the story still has to deal with Everest sized egos, idiot directors and bad acting. IMHO I don’t think I’ll ever get over how horrible “Kill Bill” was. The principal character held that katana like it was a cross between bread stick and a marital aid. Ugh.

    Then again perhaps it’s simply due to the economics. When you’re charging $10 for the ticket and about that amount again for the requisite popcorn and soda for one person it can get expensive. A teenager on a date could spend $20-$30 just for a two hour movie. If you want to do anything afterwards then you’re talking $50 just for a single date. Considering that there are many alternative forms of entertainment perhaps the enterprising teen is abandoning movies for something else?

    BTW I loved Master & Commander and ROTK. I thought Last Samurai was ok but it was a serious overdose of Tom Cruise. Could there possibly be a couple scenes *without* Tom? And could there possibly be a film that doesn’t portray asians as some sort of philosophical proverb spewing “Ancient Chinese Secret” kind of person?

  • Scott

    Ed hit it square on the head: at $10 a go, Hollywood best be prepared for dismal showings at the box office. Especially when we’re handed a slew of sequel/made-for-sequel crap that’ll find it’s way into the Sooper Dooper Discount Bin at Best Buy within 18 months.

    Perhaps, at least, Hollywood’s downward slide may equal fewer mentions of “Benn-ifer” and “Brad and Jen’s Excellent Mid-East Adventure”.

  • Vlad the Inhaler

    Personally, I blame video games. They’re more fun and they last longer.

  • Guy Herbert

    There’s something else that causes this levelling down. The economics of Hollywood product are global. The US is an important market, but it is no longer everything. The real money isn’t made from first-run domestic cinema receipts. It is in worldwide distribution, merchandising (where possible), and videogram sales.

    That’s why plots are thin and explosions are big. It doesn’t just have to play (to ill-educated, inattentive teenagers) in Peoria but also in Penang. Who cares about the story or the characters when the greater part of the audience won’t or can’t follow either? And meanwhile local censorship, or distributors’ cuts, may make nonsense of anything too structured.

    Mainstream Hollywood is selling spectacle and/or titillation to the world. And it has to signal to its varied audiences what they can expect. People want more of the same. For a huge segment of the populace, the security of what they enjoyed before is better than risking time and money on an unknown experience they might not enjoy. They need to be offered reliable, if low grade, pleasure. Franchise movies do that; easily recognisable genre-movies do that. (Just like brand logos and designer labels.)

    It is a miracle that the best is so good.

  • Rob

    One nice thing about DVDs is that films that weren’t successful in the cinema get a second chance. For example, Donnie Darko. Its big screen release completely passed me by, perhaps because the Hollywood execs didn’t think it mainstream enough to be worthy of large amounts of expensive promotion. But the DVD release has become a surprise hit, and a song from the film hit the top of the singles chart.

    I’d still prefer to go and see films at the cinema; it’s more of an experience and, for now, the quality of 35mm film projection is far better than even DVD.

    High definition TV and DVD may change all that. I think cinemas need to start competing harder with home cinema. It would be nice to see something like Maxivision48 take off, but I’ve been waiting for that a long time.


  • Alfred E. Neuman

    I’m surprised no one has hit upon one other thing that has, in my opinion, almost assuredly been one of the most important reasons for Hollywood decline: political correctness.

    Hollywood, as we all know, is absolutely infested with leftists, many of whom have an inordinate amount of control. What this has led to is a constant leftist/tranzi thematic drone in nearly every big-budget (or supposedly more “artistic”) movie.

    When, as a writer, you are trapped in a cell constructed of PC bars, it must be damned hard to come up with fresh, original, truly engaging material. I mean, if all people are just members of a group, it’s kind of hard to have unique and interesting characters.

    Many of the reasons listed by previous posters are, I think, also factors. But I watch a lot of movies, and though I tend to certain genres, I try to branch out a lot. One thing I’ve been doing recently is revisting 80’s movies, especially 80’s action (because a nearby video store that opened in the 80’s has a ton of it).

    Watching these 80’s movies, you see a vast difference between the attitudes in those movies and the attitudes you see now (and through much of the 90’s). They were more realistic; more plot driven; and you just get a feel from them that they were often written by a “normal” person; someone who actually had life experinces and hadn’t spent their entire life either in college or in Hollywood trying to sell scripts.

    This is a long-winded post, so let me conclude with a suggestion that anyone who is interested in this go back and specifically start watching some 70’s and 80’s movies. I would suggest staying before 89, and absolutely do not go past 92-93. Charles Bronson movies are always a good start for this.

    And while you are watching, just look for stuff that you could say to yourself, “they’d never put in/allow/stand for that today.” And I don’t mean gore; I mean a teenager picking up a dropped gun and defending themselves successfully; or an honest discussion about race; or pro-capitalist themes, etc. I think you’ll be surprised how many more there were, and how desensitized you’ve become to the obscene leftward slant (or omissions) in most of today’s film.

    Oh, and all the good new horror is coming from Japan.

  • Julesk

    My explanation for the decline in Hollywood’s product is the cumulative degeneration of each generation of writers. Watch any product from earlier years–the films of the 50s and 60s are good for this–and you’ll see and hear writing and direction which came from people who knew books and stage plays. You will see actual dialogue, plot development, and real character development. Most current writers and producers seem to have grown up watching movies–and that’s about it. Their productions are long on spectacle and catchy camera anges, but short on anything which has traditionally defined good drama.

    Heavens, any Perry Mason rerun will give most current cinematic productions a run for their money.

  • ed


    1. Political correctness.
    This is an absolutely great point. One common thread between the more successful movies of 2003 is that they are oriented around serious philosophical issues. Duty, responsibility, courage and a willingness to endure privation and loss when fulfilling an ideal. Even, in instances, patriotism. Frankly these aren’t very common in Hollywood films.

    2. Video games.
    Yeah this is pretty likely. For $10 you can rent a good video game for a week and play it with all your friends. God knows I play my xbox live enough.

    3. HDTV.
    Very likely. I recently purchased a 56″ HDTV (woot!) and I prefer to watch movies on it rather than a movie theater. Frankly the image seems to be the same size and the experience is better.

    4. Future TV.
    If watching movies at home in preference to a theater is a factor then it’s only going to grow. There is a really interesting technology that is currently being applied to cell phones and PDAs that will, in the very near future, be applied to TVs. Specifically the technology is called LEP (Light Emitting Polymer). This technology allows for the manufacture of extremely thin (5mm-10mm) screens in large sizes with low cost. Literally the screen is laminated from around 15 layers of special polymers forming a complete screen. There’s no practical limit to how big the screen can be and the pixels (using LEP) are printed on the polymer layers using special inkjet print heads.

    Currently the resolution of an LEP screen is about 1024×768 per inch (!!) and has a resolution about nine times that of HDTV. Additionally there is a relatively low defect rate, compared to TFT screens especially, which will also drive the costs down. I frankly expect that Sony will start offering a 65″ HDTV LEP for around $600 in a couple years. Perhaps the first production run will be more expensive than that but the costs will accelerate downward with great momentum.

    CDT. Keywords to use in searching “LEP”, “LEP cambridge”, “lep hdtv”.

    disclaimer: *shrug* I have no financial interest in this company. My investments are in other companies. But I thought I would share this bit of info as I’m seriously waiting for the day when I can have an 8′ x 10′ digital TV. Take it as you like but, as always, if you’re considering investing in anything make sure you do research.

  • Mashiki

    When my bestfriend and I went out on a ‘date’ and I use that term loosely since we are only best friends, and we swing for whoever gets it next time, me being the lucky one got a chance to pay for the movie. Lucky for us we only go to the movies once a year. $12.50cdn each for a ticket, another $25 for popcorn, pop and some candy. That runs us up to $50 for an 1.5hr movie, mighty expensive. For that much we can goto a decent resturant and have a good conversation. Or get something from a the local pub for takeout and eat, while either renting something to watch or simply watching TV.

  • Kresh

    Interesting Remarks: “I’m surprised no one has hit upon one other thing that has, in my opinion, almost assuredly been one of the most important reasons for Hollywood decline: political correctness.”

    and: “My explanation for the decline in Hollywood’s product is the cumulative degeneration of each generation of writers.”

    Seeing as how I’m attempting to persue said career, I think the former quote has the right idea. Television (Perry Mason and such) back in the days was seen as a new and innovative form of entertainment. Writers were drawn to the medium by the new challenge of not just seeing their characters and situation on the page, but by actually seeing them in the flesh, so to speak. Thusly, the “Good Ol’ Days” of television were born.

    The latter quote, I think, is very wrong. There are many excellent writers out there, and most (not all) make the low-budget, indy, and non-mainstream movies. The desire for money in Hollywood (nothing wrong with this, as they are a business after all) is strong and history has shown the best block-buster sucesses are from generalized plots with non-challenging stories and big effects. While this is, admittedly, a huge generalization (sp), and good stories and innovative film somehow rise to the top, there just isn’t a huge (read: money-making) market in non-formulaic (sp, again) films. Even the studios that make their name and reputation with non-typical movies eventually fall prey to the desire for a huge box office extravaganza that nets them loads of cash.

    Back to the statement, Hollywood is more about who you know, than what you know or what you are capable of. A friend of mine who is working to get something made in tinseltown right now (he’s currently in Development Hell) knows plenty of talented writers who can’t get anyone to talk to them and discuss their scripts because they don’t know anybody. Of course, that does lend credence to JulesK’s statement, but if a writer is determined enough and presses the flesh enough, he can get his work out there. It just requires more time than most aspiring writers are wont to take.

    “Oh, and all the good new horror is coming from Japan.”

    Good, I was hoping I didn’t waste my money on “Uzumaki”. It hasn’t arrived just yet…