Saturday, March 2, 2019

Spielberg As King Canute: The Changing Landscape Of First-Run Movies

It must sting to be Steven Spielberg these days. Not so long ago, he complained of the shrinking market for non-blockbusters in theatrical release:
Steven Spielberg on Wednesday predicted an "implosion" in the film industry is inevitable, whereby a half dozen or so $250 million movies flop at the box office and alter the industry forever. What comes next -- or even before then -- will be price variances at movie theaters, where "you're gonna have to pay $25 for the next Iron Man, you're probably only going to have to pay $7 to see Lincoln." He also said that Lincoln came "this close" to being an HBO movie instead of a theatrical release. [Emboldening mine. — RLM]

George Lucas agreed that massive changes are afoot, including film exhibition morphing somewhat into a Broadway play model, whereby fewer movies are released, they stay in theaters for a year and ticket prices are much higher. His prediction prompted Spielberg to recall that his 1982 film E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial stayed in theaters for a year and four months.
The lack of long runs and the coin-minting that follows might be one reason Spielberg has lately taken to slagging on Netflix:
Less than a week after Netflix's Roma walked away with three Oscar awards, IndieWire reports Spielberg intends to propose an Academy rule change that would disqualify Netflix original films from Oscar contention. He's expected to make his case during the next Academy Board of Governors meeting scheduled for April.

"Steven feels strongly about the difference between the streaming and theatrical situation," said a spokesperson for Amblin, a production company founded by Spielberg. "He'll be happy if the others will join [his campaign] when that comes up [at the Academy Board of Governors meeting]. He will see what happens."
But what I suspect rankles Spielberg even more is the nature of the top grossing movies today. Kaya Savas in the Winter, 2018 issue of The Score, the Society of Composers & Lyricists' quadrennial magazine took a look at the scene twenty years ago, when Spielberg ruled Hollywood, and wondered: what changed?
Of the top 10 grossing films of 1998, only three were either sequels or a remake of an existing established franchise. Also take a look at the variety of production budgets and the different genres all represented here. We even see the Oscar winner for Best Picture of that year with Shakespeare in Love cracking the top 10. The film landscape was so incredibly different.


In 2017 we see how much has changed in 20 years. In 2017, our top 10 worldwide films were all sequels or remakes, and all were action tentpoles. Also, only 3 of the films were produced for under $100 million. So what happened? When did this all start...?

It was in 2008 that we saw a shift start to happen. The U.S. economy was in the midst of a recession as were other countries around the globe. 2008 was also the first year to have a Marvel Studios movie released. Iron Man did a respectable $585 million at the box-office worldwide, fantastic numbers for the year. But still, Iron Man placed eighth in worldwide grosses for the year, being beat out by movies like Mamma Mia! ($609.8 million), Hancock ($624.4 million), and Kung Fu Panda ($631.7 million). The top film for 2008 was of course, The Dark Knight, which barely crossed the $1 billion mark.
Savas blamed the singularity of fantasy/spandex movies on audiences (still) lacking the discretionary budgets they had before the recession, and thus wanting a guaranteed good time — escapism. What Savas called "middle class" films — mid-budget stories that don't rely on the power of franchise, fantasy, or both — have all but uniformly changed to streaming distribution.
When Netflix and Amazon began looking for original content, there was a whole generation of storytellers eager to work, but with no place in the current theatrical exhibition space. Directors could direct again, without serving a brand vision. We saw challenging and more unique offerings. Auteurs like the Coen brothers and Cary Fukunaga found a place to exercise their creativity. It wouldn't be surprising to see someone like Terrence Malick follow suit.
Spielberg here pines for the old days of simpler distribution — a business model that made him a fortune. This is a rearguard action that he cannot win. Silver screen's prestige couldn't save the serial business model from television; neither can barring Netflix series from Oscar eligibility bring back theatrical blockbusters with 16-month legs. Just as SAG was eventually forced to merge with AFTRA, the old, bright line between first-run movies and television has more or less vanished, save for the very top. He can work with it, or like King Canute, he can pretend he has the power to change the sea with mere words.

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