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Friday, November 01, 2013

Global, not US, market dominates Hollywood (Obst, 2013)

Look out for useful terminology/neologisms below: pre-awareness and tentpoles and tadpoles
$101m global box office, $21m budget (1993)
A few useful nuggests from this article by Phil Hoad, which highlights and critiques some of the points raised by one-time Hollywood hit producer Lynda Orbst in her bio (given an excoriating review by an unimpressed David Thomson, here), but the really important point concerns WHY Hollywood has turned to tentpole CGI/SFX spectaculars, usually within franchises and/or using 'pre-known' brands/books.

Her line of attack, that Hollywood has wrongly turned its back on medium budget concept movies, where the script, not CGI, is king, is a common one - especially from industry veterans...
If it wasn't startling enough when, in 2011, Universal president Ron Meyer commented on the amount of "shitty movies" on his own slate, founding fathers Steven Spielberg and George Lucas stepped up in the same week as Obst's book was published to denounce Hollywood's blockbuster dependency. ... The reckoning – led by baby boomers attacking the recent homogenisation drive in mainstream films – has exposed a generation gap in Hollywood.
Digitisation emerges as one key cause in this shift:
the shrinking of DVD revenue in the mid-noughties halved the studios' profit margins and reduced their appetite for risk

But this shift was accompanied by another that ensured the big 6 began constructing their release calendars around the tentpole spectaculars:
the international box office that almost tripled between 2000 and 2010
This is something I've blogged on many times, but its importance to grasping how Hollywood operates cannot be overstated - there is an ongoing shift rendering the non-US market more important to the studios than the domestic US market itself.

To understand British cinema we need to recognise the overwhelming cultural/aesthetic and financial (through production and distribution, and exhibition for any films seeking to maximise returns) domination of the US through the big 6 (big 7 now with Lionsgate?). That US scene in turn, and somewhat ironically, is seeing its domestic production also being tailored for foreign audiences, with the alternative ending for World War Z one of many recent, explicit examples of this process at work.

Obst pinpoints the impact of digitisation as fuelling this shift:
"The same digital technology that gave us downloading and destroyed the profits of the industry also started pouring in money from international, because what these markets were craving was huge special effects." The explosion of the CGI blockbuster has gone hand-in-hand with the building of Dolby- and now 3D- and Imax-equipped screens needed to show them in countries where the multiplex feared to tread before the 1990s. Sleepless in Hollywood cites Titanic as the start of this revolution: Fox built a state-of-the-art auditorium in Kaliningrad so James Cameron could make good on his promise to screen the film to the local sailors who had helped on research trips to the wreck.
Titanic started a drive for high-tech cinemas outwith the US
Once advanced cinemas started being built beyond the US (and UK), demand for the CGI tentpoles that make full use of their enhanced capabilities soared abroad, making those non-US audiences more and more important.

By 2013 most tentpoles make at least half their box office from foreign markets. Obst flags up the importance of what she terms pre-awareness to market tentpole films internationally, and coins the (rather clever/fitting!) term tadpoles to denote the low/medium budget movie that used to be a mainstay of Hollywood production, but recently has been the domain of Indies (generating a lot of Oscar success too).
The CGI blockbuster arrives so often in franchise form because franchises come with what Obst calls "pre-awareness", saving on marketing costs that become prohibitive when studios have to establish fresh material in the minds of culturally diverse worldwide audiences. And whether in the form of Ice Age or Harry Potter or Iron Man or Oblivion, the American CGI spectacular was almost a brand in its own right; it was overseas markets that were most hungry for it, consistently displaying more patience with the inevitable sequels than the domestic US crowd. This equation was what gave rise to the proliferation of $200m+ budgets, the new gigantist model adopted – another paradox! – by Hollywood during a period of financial contraction. This is why mid-budget movies like Obst's dwindled to be replaced by an ecology of "tent-poles and tadpoles".
Do you agree with her book's argument?
Obst is hardly likely then to be a fan of Anita Elberse's coldly economic book, Blockbusters, which argues that studios simply must apply the tentpole strategy or die. Elberse, of course, is not concerned with issues over quality or culture.

The notion that 3D is losing appeal has been raised many times, including in this blog; Obst goes a step further in arguing that the tentpole era is coming to a close:
But, like a lot of film lovers, she questions whether, with the reliance on tested properties, Hollywood is scraping its own creative barrel bone-dry. "I think we're close," she says, pointing out the many flops rejected by US audiences over this summer (Lone Ranger, Pacific Rim, After Earth, RIPD). "We've got this formula: set-piece, set-piece, blow up a city, dystopian universe, robots that do the same things. It's not easy to make those things fresh. We're approaching a singularity. Foreign audiences will start to reject it, too, just as they're starting to be bored with 3D."
Not being someone who sees any appeal in CGI dreck such as the Transformers franchise, I sympathise with Obst - but suspect that her argument on this is wishful thinking. Indeed, I've blogged previously on arguments that cinema will become a minority, luxury medium in the future, with ticket prices of $50 and upwards. What do you think?

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