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June 30, 2005

More Movie Notes

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Some smart observations from professional movie people.

George Lucas:

"Box office numbers have been going down since World War II. They're on a slide and will continue to be. The profitable areas are now television and DVD, and the entire paradigm is shifting dramatically," Lucas said. "People will always go to theaters, because they will always like a social experience, but I don't think it's going to be as big as it is now."

Lucas said he will not be alone in Hollywood. The growth of home theaters, new delivery mechanisms and alternative viewing devices like mobile phones will inevitably alter moviemaking.

"The big tent-pole movies will be the first victim of the rapid technological changes we're seeing now," he predicted. "We're just not going to see those being made anymore."

The shift from big-screen epics toward television and mobile devices is also inspiring an aesthetic shift, Lucas said.

"There is a difference between how you make things for big screen and small screen. When you're designing for DVD, you tend to end up with more close-ups, and your wide shots aren't so wide. I don't subscribe to that stylistic shift, but a lot of kids making movies now grew up on TV and DVDs -- not films in theaters -- so that's how they make movies. I prefer to make them for the big screen, and they tend to work out alright."

James Toback:

I think that the independent movement today is a glorified audition to be co-opted by corporate benediction. It really started with Paramount and my dear, late friend Don Simpson — this idea that the poster is the movie, the concept is the movie.

That thinking has had — and I say this with due respect to Don, whom I loved — a devastating effect. It created a world in which every movie must be viewed in terms of how it will be marketed and what the distribution concept will be. Because the money is so huge and because it’s so difficult to exist below the radar screen cinematically, you can get a movie made. But to get it distributed and to get any attention is extremely hard — the seduction, the idea of directing a $100 million movie, is too strong for most young filmmakers to resist.

I don’t think the power of conglomerate corporate distribution stops movies of originality from being made altogether, but what it does is stop careers of real originality from being noticed and developed. The climate isn’t there for the kind of flourishing there was in the ’70s. We’re now in a corporate culture where the idea of money and a materialistic notion of life are so widely taken for granted that you’re considered naive if you don’t genuflect beneath it. Whereas, in the ’70s it was the reverse. It was the idea of subverting those values that, if you had any self-respect, you took for granted. That was your price of admission.

From a cinematographer named M. David Mullen:

We've had the influence of music videos and commercials and those directors coming into theatrical filmmaking and changing the style of movies, the style of lighting.

We've had an increase in the use of close-ups, and I don't know whether that is just because of television, editing on small computer screens, or watching on the set using small videotap monitors and therefore zooming in tighter because you can't sense a performance on a medium shot. I'm sure that's one aspect to why movies are framed tighter than they used to be.

But it's also just a stylistic evolution. To feel like you're having more impact emotionally, people take any style and exaggerate it. The framing gets tighter, the editing gets faster. There are visceral ways of pumping up a movie to make it seem more exciting than a film of a previous generation.

The trouble is it is a dead-end because if you overuse a close-up or camera movement, then it has no emotional weight when you finally do use it for a specific emotional effect. If everything is shot in close-up, the only emotional impact you're going to have is either by going to an extreme close up or to an extreme long shot. Nowadays we use wide shots for emotional punctuation in a scene instead of a close-up. We go to some dramatic distant shot or something to create some emotional change.

And, from a terrific Rob Nelson interview with the biographer and critic David Thomson:

I think what we're talking about here is a much bigger, much sadder problem, which is that the mainstream of American movies has been terribly disappointing in recent years. The question that faces anyone who loves the medium is whether this is a cyclical thing--a passing dip, so to speak--or whether there might be something much more worrying. I notice that the business itself is beginning to get quite anxious about declining attendance: There has been a big drop-off [in ticket sales] this year. And God knows how much bigger it would have been but for the final Star Wars film. If we didn't have that film--which I think gives a sort of artificial boost to the figures--the first six months of this year would be pretty gloomy. There's a lot of evidence to suggest two things--which could, in fact, be working [in tandem]: that films don't mean as much to audiences anymore, and that they don't mean as much to filmmakers anymore, either ...

What we've allowed to happen is the domination of the market by audiences of a certain age range. It's certainly true that Lucas and Spielberg together helped bring that younger audience into being. Now that audience determines not just most of the films that are made, but their general nature, their tone. I do think that a lot of people my age--I'm 64--have given up on the movies. The truth is that television, if you pick and choose, is a lot more grown-up and satisfying these days: HBO, for instance ...

The "A movies" are childish in content. A lot of the best writers these days are drawn to television rather than to the movies. Because if you write for the movies, you are, more than ever, in this dreadful committee structure where you get rewritten and rewritten and rewritten. Certainly there are corporate structures in television. But the volume of production is the distinguishing factor. Television has to produce a great deal just to fill the air, whereas the movies are always going for the smash hit.

I found a few of these passages at Green Cine Daily, a blog the movie-infatuated must, simply must, visit regularly.



posted by Michael at June 30, 2005


It has been noted for some time that while the best TV is the domain of the writer-producer, who often can exercise a fair amount of control and deliver work with a singlular vision, blockbuster movies are too often dumbed-down exercises in compromise, which play it safe in an attempt to appeal to the widest possible audience in order to return big box office bucks. I will go toe-to-toe with anyone to defend Joss Whedon’s tv series “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” as a great, dense, work of art, but also note that series as diverse as “The Sopranos,” “NYPD: Blue” (at least the early years) and the current “Lost” and “24” are as complex and rewarding as a good novel, while British imports such as “Prime Suspect” or “The Office” are just damn good stuff. And since this stuff is done by and appeals to some of the same folks who also do and attend movies, I don’t think you can easily say that film makers and movie audiences are undemanding or dumb.

But when was the last time you read about a play, a poem, a novel, or a piece of classical music being described as “great and important?” There are still a few films that get written and talked about, but for reasons that could spur a blog of its own, much of what passes for “culture” is being whittled down to empty bombast, spectacle, revivals or remakes. Television, for now, seems to provide a relatively wide range of consistently entertaining and moving work, but too many films oscillate between the big budget “thrill rides” and the earnest pretentiousness of “edgy” indie films done by artists who flaunt their ignorance of the real world and real people.

Posted by: Alec on July 1, 2005 2:29 AM

It's all about sensation, and ANTI-reflection. Although this has always been more or less the case when it comes to films it is now totally the case.

Maybe a start could be made if movie makers came around to the notion that it is not a crime for the camera to linger on people who are talking!

Posted by: ricpic on July 1, 2005 9:55 AM

Movie execs should be paying attention to what happened in the music industry, because all the same forces caused it to become the mess it is are now becoming true for the movie industry.

Then again, this might be one of the normal bust and boom cycles all industry goes through. The over-consolidation might begin to leave room for some good independent distribution, particularly if all you have to do is pipe a digital signal to the theatres.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on July 1, 2005 10:55 AM

Toback's comment---the movie is the poster. Everybody is thinking about how to market it. Market what? Until the movie's done, what are you marketing? That's what's so sad. It's like Viagra---it had a medical purpose, for a specific condition, and yet some "marketer" said, hey, y'know, we could broaden the customer base if we IMPLY that it makes everybody's sex life better...regardless.

I mean, really, isn't the "art" of marketing coming up with the "Taxi Driver" poster once the movie is done? (Think about pitching that movie today: "Well, he's a vet, and he's really angry just in general, and there's this blond, and then there's a teenage prostitute, and he's so sexually wierd that he gets off on thinking about saving the teenage prostitute (who doesn't really wanna be saved), and so he shaves his head and tries to kill a political candidate, and then blows the pimp away, and at the end he's a hero. What's the poster look like?" Whoever came up with the Taxi Driver poster is a genius. And they did it AFTER). Isn't amazing how the wrong people always end up driving the bus? Poster-makers run the movie biz! Stock analysts essentially run most american companies. Defense contractors run our foreign policy. Sigh. It makes me think of the line from the movie "The Player", when they are pitching a movie, and they say "It's like "Pretty Woman" meets "Out of Africa."

Posted by: annette on July 1, 2005 11:43 AM

I gotta say, I think maybe Don Simpson was just looking at the writing on the wall. I've seen statistical studies (I do live in L.A., after all) that say that positive reviews only help a film's box office if it sticks around for six weeks. Hence, the film-goer's buying decision is based mostly on...the trailer. Looking at these studies, I had the same thought as Mr. Simpson--the product is the trailer...the movie is just a form of customer service.

So maybe complex, character-driven movies...need to study their trailer-ology. Maybe they--"gasp"--suffer from poor marketing.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on July 1, 2005 1:08 PM

I agree with Friedrich. I think he just made the point better than me. But rather than tailor the movies to the marketing, my point is...tailor better marketing to the movies.

Posted by: annette on July 1, 2005 1:34 PM

I think the Friedrich formly known as a blowhard has nailed it.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on July 1, 2005 2:54 PM

This comedian does a pretty funny imitation of what it's like to watch movie trailers. Fast connections only, of course.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 1, 2005 3:18 PM

Hey annette, you'll be sure to like this news. The comments are very funny.

They're also doing Scarface, The Godfather, and - heaven help us - Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer.

Posted by: Brian on July 1, 2005 9:53 PM

Maybe the people in fly over country, those red-staters, finally are becoming tired of supporting an industry that thinks they are evil, bible-thumping rubes and who basically hold them in nothing but contempt.

Posted by: Booke on July 2, 2005 2:50 AM

I just got back from War Of The Worlds and I've crafted a keen and subtle theory for why box office is down. Would you like to hear it? My theory, which is mine, is as follows:


Boy do they ever suck! Merciful God! I've never seen such drivel. It stunk so bad I had to go and get dry cleaned.

To make good money, first make good movies would be my business plan.

Boy was it bad. Steven, Steven, Steven... [shakes head]

Posted by: Brian on July 2, 2005 4:12 AM

After reading several good reviews, I went to see Batman Begins on a hot day. The movie calms down A BIT after a while, but the beginning has lots of extreme closeups with tops of heads cut off, violent fights edited so you can't possibly see what's going on, hyper-sounds pumped up and edited for maximum impact, etc.

Maybe the director learned his craft watching little monitors with crappy sound, or maybe he just has ADD.

As I went to hit the "post" button, Kurt Andersen started greatly praising Batman Begins. It reminds me that I was also annoyed by the premise that I was supposed to take A Batman seriously.

Posted by: john massengale on July 2, 2005 10:58 AM

I've read that dvd sales are in decline as well. In fact, yesterday Pixar had to cut back its forecast for sales of Incredibles dvds by a couple million causing a nasty drop in stock price.

The uncanny thing about the box office drop is that it's not just taking place in the US. It's everywhere.

Oh, and I've also read that the starkest decline in box office income has been among independent films, so I doubt we can depend on them to rescue us. The good thing about times like this is that the moneymen get desperate enough to let potentially wonderful work through that ordinarilly would have never made it. So, let's cross our fingers.

"The movie calms down A BIT after a while, but the beginning has lots of extreme closeups with tops of heads cut off, violent fights edited so you can't possibly see what's going on, hyper-sounds pumped up and edited for maximum impact, etc."

It's fundamentally an action film. What else did you expect? With action films there are really only so many incredible effects and so much fast editing people can take before the law of diminishing returns kicks in.

Posted by: lindenen on July 2, 2005 2:56 PM

God, I hate what most action scences have become, especially in war flicks; tons of close ups and fast camera movements and cuts which just assualt your senses, but don't let you make any sense of what's happening. I'd like to actually be able to understand the flow of the battle and see how tactical descions lead to the final outcome, but I guess the studios figure moviegoers too dumb to follow or care about [i]why[/i] things are happening and we'll just want that high impact visual stimulation.

Seems a lot are just settling for not going to such crap at all, so maybe the studios will get the message that if they want more people to show up, they could try, ya know, actually making [i]good[/i] movies.

Posted by: Zetjintsu on July 2, 2005 3:32 PM

Well, there are only so many hours in the day, and so many fun alternatives for entertainment! Television, radio, movies, internet, books, actual real live people (the last is my favorite...don't you get tired of looking at a computer screen? Or any screen, too long? I do.) Maybe the period of mass movie going was the aberration, the way people say women staying home with the kids all 50s like was a real aberration, too, and not the baseline it's made out to be.

Posted by: MD on July 2, 2005 3:35 PM


Bingo! We have a winner.

One of the great thrills in going to the movies is seeing something that you have never seen before.

Where are the original stories or concepts today? Everything produced by the studios is either a remake of another movie or worse a tv show, an adaptation of a comic book, or a sequel/prequel. Or some combination of one or more of the above.

Just this movie season we are getting this:

The Honeymooners
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
The Longest Yard
War of the Worlds
Dukes of Hazard
Batman Begins
The Fantastic Four
Star Wars III
Miss Congeniality 2
The Pink Panther

For Christ's sake Cameron Crowe is even getting ready to remake "Trouble in Paradise".

Posted by: princeofprice on July 2, 2005 5:20 PM

Is he? Oh, that's a terrible idea...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 3, 2005 2:27 AM

I probably won't see "WotW", but I thought "The Terminal" was just embarassing, cringe-making drivel.

Posted by: dan g. on July 3, 2005 12:07 PM

Has anyone noticed that the acting has gotten a lot better over the last few decades?

For one reason and another I've seen a number of movies from the 30s to the 60s recently, and with some exceptions (Lawrence Oliver) they appear to have hired actors on the basis of their facial expression, and said actor then maintains that facial expression for the length of the film.

Whatever you say about current films, at least most of the actors have improved vastly.

Posted by: Tracy W on July 3, 2005 5:54 PM

Several good points, particularly the simple observation that the movies suck. That trend is particularly noticeable this year and last year, particularly in the traditional summer "tentpole" season, when the big budget blockbusters use piledriver marketing (usually doubling the cost of the picture) to try to ensure massive front-end loading -- that is, grab your maximum audience in the first two to three weeks before the movie (which sucks) drops off a cliff.,

This is why Friedrich is wrong. It's not that there's something wrong with the marketing of more interesting, character-driven movies; it's that they can't afford the marketing bucks that would give them an early run at pulling fair-sized audiences.

In addition, ciritical reception is of far less importance than good word of mouth (whether it be a blockbuster or an art movie). Memento could not even find a distributor (even Miramax passed) and had to make its own way with a no-budget marketing strategy -- yet WOM turned it into a cult hit.

The past year has dramatically illustrated the law of diminishing returns on which the big studios operate. The trend for sprawling epics , launched by Ridley Scott's Gladiator, ended, suitably and ironically, with the box office flop Kingdom of Heaven, also directed by Mr Scott. And Oliver Stone climbed on the bandwagon with Alexander just as the wheels came off.

The movie industry always rides a formula or trend until it crashes because it is run by bean counters. It worked before, it must work now. Well, up to a point.

Lucas is right in that we will now see renewed interest in STORY and CHARACTER, but good commercial scripts are very thin on the ground. The standard of writing in the mainstream is by and large appalling. Ageism has something to do with this, as does the studio view of the writer as a necessary evil.

However, I believe that DVD will revive interest in moviegoing across the board, not reduce it. Boom and bust will continue at the box office, but a night out at the movies will continue to be a staple.

Posted by: Dave F on July 5, 2005 8:36 AM

Brian---"Taxi Driver"--the video game? What I think is really funny is that in their description of the plot, after Travis shaves his head, the posting then says "...and then hilarity ensues."

Posted by: annette on July 5, 2005 9:56 AM

The cover story in the June issue of Harper's is by David Mamet: "Bambi vs. Godzilla: Why Art Loses in Hollywood."

Not online yet, but very interesting.

Posted by: beloml on July 5, 2005 11:59 AM

heh. Godzilla wasn't created by Hollywood, was it? Isn't that japanese? And Bambi, wasn't that a huge success?

Posted by: lindenen on July 5, 2005 5:53 PM

This year's box office numbers, to the present date, are the third highest in history. Last year's were the highest. The year before's were the second highest.

Yes, the movies suck, but people haven't stopped going to see them.

Posted by: Cryptic Ned on July 5, 2005 8:02 PM

Nobody is saying that people have stopped going to the movies but attendance is down and has been going down for a while. Dollar figures don't tell the whole story as the price of a ticket is constantly going up.

Posted by: Al DeRogatis on July 5, 2005 8:40 PM

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