I think that, generally speaking, it’s kind of hard not to be at least intrigued by Arnon Milchan. The legendary producer and financier has been around forever, may or may not have been an arms dealer and an Israeli spy who could have taught James Bond a thing or two, and most recently, his New Regency production shingle was behind two of the last three Best Picture winners.
Last week, the 71-year-old gave a rare interview to the Hollywood Reporter, in which he said that “the movie business stinks.” He goes on to say that Hollywood depends too much on sequels and movie stars (who are having less and less box office impact), not paying enough attention to the script, and also pointed out that the film business pales in comparison to other pop culture ventures.
“[News Corp. executive] Chase Carey would explain to me that Fox’s [film division]is making a few hundred million dollars a year,” Milchan says in the piece, “but Fox Sports makes $1.5 billion and Fox News makes $1.7 billion. If you’re in the movie business, [it’s because] you’re a junkie.”
And, of course, he’s a hundred percent right, because not only are all of those things true, but there is every sign that the studios, A) also know this, and, B) don’t care. It’s because of this attitude that the mid-level adult drama or thriller has gone the way of the Dodo and that, with few exceptions, the only movies coming out of the six major studios are those that fit into a very specific category.
I have said it before, and I will say it again: Hollywood is no longer making the kinds of movies that made us fall in love with the movies in the first place.
A couple weeks ago, I pointed out that, for the most part, the rash of sequels that have hit theaters so far this year have all fared worse than their predecessors, and wondered aloud if perhaps the audience has finally had its fill of them. Milchan certainly seems to think so, which is one of the reasons why, after several fallow years, New Regency has had something of a resurgence over the last 18 months or so.
It’s companies like New Regency that are financing the movies that the studios no longer care to back, movies like Birdman and 12 Years a Slave, each of which were New Regency films, as was The Revenant, another multiple-Oscar winner. True, the Alejandro G. Iñárittu film cost $300 million once all the marketing and distribution were mixed in, but it ended up making big money for Milchan and was a triumph for 20th Century Fox, the company with whom he works and the film’s distributor.
It really is an odd time to be in the movie business. When I made my first film, 20 years ago, it was a low budget romantic comedy that did not get a lot of attention from buyers because, as I was told, it didn’t have any A-list stars in it. The thinking was that a romantic comedy didn’t work without them. That was then. Now, just about every romantic comedy that hits theaters is from the indie world and stars actors who don’t exist anywhere near the A-list, which means the tide has turned completely. In spite of the fact that women are ardent moviegoers who still love to see these kinds of films, the studios mostly eschew the genre because there’s not enough of a financial upside. They would rather spend the money on a $150 million film that could potentially make $1 billion than on a $20 million film that might make $100 million.
Of course, from a bottom line perspective, it’s difficult to blame them for this, but then, it’s also hard to have much sympathy when they inevitably complain about how the business has changed and how much harder it is to have a hit movie and actually make any money off it.
Which is where television comes in, because those stories that used to be cinematic fare are either being made by independent shingles like New Regency (or Megan Ellison’s Annapurna, or Teddy Schwartzman’s Black Bear, or one of the others who can afford to make them), or they are ending up on television. For instance, why make a $35 million spy film about deep undercover Russian agents dealing with the realities of raising a family in the U.S. during the Cold War, when you can just watch The Americans on FX? People wonder why we’re living in a golden age of TV and it’s right there in front of you.
Or rather, not in front of you at all, because the talent that used to go into putting things on the big screen have turned to the small one, with increasingly impressive results.
At some point, and it might be sooner rather than later, the audience really is going to stop going to the tentpoles and sequels (and tentpole sequels) entirely, because it will occur to them that they have seen it all before and there is nothing new there. The emperor really will have no clothes, and it will be exceedingly difficult to get them back into the theater.
Independent films — both the higher-budgeted, independently-financed, studio-released kind and the more traditional, smaller ones put out by indie distributors — are actually doing as well now as they ever have, with new distributors on the scene all the time paying legitimate fees for films to then put in theaters. Between that and the ever increasing VOD market, it’s a great time to be creating original content. Especially if it’s a movie that gets a little bit of attention, because that is now enough to get you a first class ticket to the big leagues, and a shot to direct movies with nine-figure budgets.
This isn’t new, because the list of directors who made small movies and gradually moved up to the really huge ones is rather long. What’s different is that the word “gradually” has been removed from the equation and these inexperienced filmmakers are forced to work without a net, which is a shame.
It’s a good thing there are still producers out there who are letting filmmakers tell the stories they want to tell, rather than the ones they’re being hired to tell, because otherwise it would start to get really boring at the multiplex.
Or, I should say, more boring than it already is. Milchan is right. It all kind of stinks.
Neil Turitz is a filmmaker and journalist who has spent close to two decades in the independent film world and writing about Hollywood. Aside from being a screenwriter/director and Tracking Board columnist, he is also a senior editor at SSN Insider.