The Terror vs. Not So Bad

Some months ago producer and former 20th Century Fox honcho Peter Chernin spoke to producer Lynda Obst for her book, Sleepless in Hollywood: Tales of The New Abnormal in the Movie Business, and here’s how he described things: “[The] studios are frozen…terrified, not necessarily inappropriately, to do anything because they don’t know what the numbers look like.”

What they don’t know, more specifically, is “how to run a P & L” — a profit-and-loss statement for their board members — “because [they] don’t know what the DVD number is.’ The DVD number used to be half of the entire P & L!” Wait…today’s home video “numbers” are mainly about VOD and streaming before DVD/Bluray, right? Bluray is niche and DVD is strictly bargain-basement. I realize that the collapse of the DVD market four or five years ago cut heavily into profits and that VOD and streaming sales are delivering…what, a third of what the DVD market was at its height? But studio guys can’t at least project what VOD and streaming revenues will be?

But all right, okay… mainstream Hollywood is “broken,” says Obst. The only kinds of films that are getting funded are pre-sold, mostly CG-driven, ancient-myth or comic-book properties aimed at lowbrow under-35 males.

And yet somehow a fair amount of good stuff is getting made. Somehow, despite what Chernin and Obst and others are all telling us, the mainstream 2013 slate includes several presumably smart, high-toned features that weren’t made for nickels and dimes and aren’t precisely aimed at under-35 idiot males: David O. Russell‘s American Hustle, John WellsAugust: Osage County, Alexander Payne‘s Nebraska, George Clooney‘s Monuments Men, Paul Greengrass‘s Captain Phillips, Alfonso Cuaron‘s Gravity, Martin Scorsese‘s Wolf of Wall Street, Steve McQueen‘s 12 Years A Slave, Jason Reitman‘s Labor Day, Joel and Ethan Coen‘s Inside Llewyn Davis, Bennett Miller‘s Foxcatcher, John Lee Hancock‘s Saving Mr. Banks, Ridley Scott‘s The Counselor, Spike Lee‘s Oldboy, Luc Besson‘s The Family, Spike Jonze‘s Her, Anton Corbijn‘s A Most Wanted Man, Peter Landesman‘s Parkland, Diablo Cody‘s Paradise, Asghar Farhadi‘s The Past, Woody Allen‘s Blue Jasmine, Susanne Bier‘s Serena, Errol Morris‘s The Unknown Known: The Life and Times of Donald Rumsfeld, Ryan Coogler‘s Fruitvale Station, Ron Howard‘s Rush, David Cronenberg‘s Maps to the Stars and Neil Blomkamp‘s Elysium.

“I think the two driving forces [of what you’re calling the Great Contraction] were the recession and the transition of the DVD market,” Chernin tells Obst. “The 2008 writers’ strike added a little gasoline to the fire. It was partially driven by the recession, but I think it was more driven by technology.” So “there it was,” Obst summarizes. “Technology had destroyed the DVD.

“When did the collapse begin?” Obst asks.

“The bad news started in 2008,” Chernin says. “Bad 2009. Bad 2010. Bad 2011.”

“The international market will still grow,” Chernin projects, “but the DVD sell-through business is not coming back again. Consumers will buy their movies on Netflix, iTunes, Amazon et al. before they will purchase a DVD.”

Thank God there’s at least a Bluray market for connoisseurs like myself — for people who care about watching films (including older films) with the best image quality obtainable. who care deeply whether a film that should be seen at 1.66 has been Blurayed at 1.66 or whacked down to 1.85, etc. Thank God there’s at least that realm to play in.

  • Hollywood was quite successful before we had Bluray, DVD, VHS, and television sales. I’m not exactly sure why the demise of any of these revenue streams should make anyone in Hollywood nervous – they’re still making huge profits off of films via theatrical runs.

    They just don’t want to give up revenue streams, that’s all. They can’t be satisfied with making less money.

    • Raising_Kaned

      I’m obviously no financial analyst (or even a numerologist), but I think I can see why studios are nervous about the theatrical release window for non-summer-tentpoles.

      Not a perfect example by any means (I fully realize its run isn’t complete), but take a look at the Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight cycle. The first two topped out around $5.5-$6.0 million in receipts. Far from an ideal take, even given the flicks’ modest budget levels. But, you know, sustainable in the sense that I don’t think the pictures ended up dabbling in the red, added a certain level of critical prestige/buzz to Sony’s slate, and probably sold fairly well (about as well as could be expected, anyway) on the VHS/DVD market.

      Before Midnight is near $1.7 about a month into its limited run. Allegedly, it’s still expanding (just recently hit the arthouse near me), but I’d be awfully surprised if it even hit the benchmarks established by the ’95 and ’04 films — and that’s not taking into account inflation, or the fact that this most recent’s movie’s budget is probably higher than that of the first two (although I couldn’t find any reliable information on this, so I could be mistaken about this). Basically, the third entry of a trilogy is on-pace to take in the LEAST amount of $, which is almost unheard of when compared to the franchises involving caped superheroes or toys that transform into cars.

      I don’t think Hollywood is “dying,” or anything, but we are seeing a shift away from the mid-low level releases (your Muds and Before Midnights are independently-produced, and only marketed/released through the system). The industry is saving all their cash to double-down at the high-stakes tables, and — given the consistently winning results — why wouldn’t they??

      And have you ever looked at the movie attendance records from the ’40s? Almost 50%-60% (depending on the source) of the entire population was going to the pictures at least ONCE A WEEK. That is never going to come close to happening, ever again — hence the ancillary markets such as BR, VOD, Netflix, etc. trying desperately to recoup whatever nickels and dimes they can that have fallen between the cracks of the proverbial seat cushions.

      • Eloi Wrath

        Consumer habits have changed dramatically though. In ’04 you’d get loads more people wiling to go to the theater to see Before Sunset because there weren’t the options there are today. Most people will now wait for streaming, and frankly you can’t blame them for a film like this. While it has nice scenery, it’s essentially two people having a long conversation, perfect for home viewing. Not to mention the audience are likely the same age as Hawke and Delpy now, so they’ve all got kids themselves. If Midnight was released on VOD same day as theaters it’d probably break some kind of record for that in terms of revenue.

        • Brian Bouton

          I completely agree this is better for home viewing. I’m the type of idiot that is only going to lay down 15 (NYU student discount) for big event films and mindless comic book movie sludge. I need to see something I can’t duplicate on my 46″ television even with a Bose Home theater.

          • Raising_Kaned

            See — you guys are located in NY, so that’s kind of a different ballgame (and somewhat unrelatable to me). Leads me to wonder what kind of “student” has a 46″ with Bose…isn’t it impossible to watch anything “at home” in that city without disturbing five other people trying to sleep/have sex?

            I can see movies once a week for $5/pop (either arthouse or multiplex) on discount days, and parking is never an issue, so it’s obviously a lower level of investment.

            But I do think there’s at least the possibility that you’re underrating (if only slightly) the communal aspect of watching a good film in a public theater. Having said that, my few memories of watching flicks in Manhattan haven’t been particularly memorable.

            • Brian Bouton

              I’m a returning student so I had the home theater from my prior teaching career, and a 46″ television is pretty affordable for the viewing masses at $500 for a Sony even.

              I’m not living in the Ritz Carlton but my Brooklyn apartment is relatively quiet, and I can enjoy all manner of televised fare.

              I agree that watching a film in a communal theater can be pretty amazing but damn, I’ve had some horrible experiences with the moviegoing public. I don’t know many great Manhattan theaters other than the big chains and the IFC near NYU’s campus that shows just about everything.

              ( I nearly got into a fistfight years ago during a screening of Peter Jackson’s “King Kong” after a father narrated the whole film for his 5-year old son two rows behind me. In retrospect, his voiceover improved that abhorrent film.)

        • Raising_Kaned

          Dunno about BM hypothetically breaking records or anything — it seems like, in general, people’s awareness of new movies that are being released (aside from the blockbuster onslaught, which is predictably more unavoidable than ever) is substantially lower than it was 10 or 15 years ago. But — like you said — changing viewing habits, changing consumer habits…that’s the way of the (first-)world.

          But are we sure that two people having a long, interrupted conversation is “perfect home viewing?” Maybe for singles, okay (although then I still think you need to factor in the “get out of the apartment” factor, too). But it actually seems like a great date movie (even though the subject matter could lead to some arguments afterward), and I think people without families like you or me probably underrate just how chaotic the home environment has become, esp. in homes with more than one child.

          So in that sense, in a weird way, maybe there’s almost no better place (still) to watch a dialogue-centric film than at the theater. I feel like we’re sort of being subliminally conditioned by exhibitionist scheduling to accept that only “event” tentpoles (Avatar, Batman, Bond, etc.) and pictures with lush photography (stuff by Malick, Scott, Fincher, et al.) are “worth seeing” in this environment.

          I don’t really know if this is true…at all. My two best film experiences of 2013 thus far have been Upstream Color and Mud. Would they have had the same (or at least a similar) impact watching at home? Impossible to say, of course (and it’s certainly possible), but I do kinda doubt it…

  • erniesouchak

    For starters, I’d point out that compared to most filmmakers, Payne, Allen & the Coens DO make their movies for nickels & dimes. Also, you’re forgetting Obst’s point that almost every studio makes an effort to cultivate relationships with 1 or 2 “real” filmmakers, which explains most of the titles on your list of the most promising of ’13. Finally, let’s not forget that it’s Hollywood studios, not the consumer, that have really destroyed the DVD. I would give anything to be able to rent DVDs and Blurays, but the industry decided to get away from physical media because streaming is cheaper for THEM.

  • blairh

    DVD is practically dead at this point and in due time the same can be said of Blu-ray. The difference in picture and sound quality between a Blu-ray and HD purchase from your Apple TV is minimal and doesn’t matter to 95% of consumers. Much like music and books, consumers will continue to realize the advantages to going all digital.

    The only entertainment that has true value still with physical discs is video games because people tend to sell their games after they have finished or gotten tired of them. That usually is not the case with music and movies.

    Renting a la carte for new movies especially is a bit pricey. I’d love to see a company come up with a plan where you pay one set price per month and have X amount of titles to stream/download for rent. Much like Netflix’s disc rental service but without the need to use discs at all.

    Purchasing digital movies is also pretty messy. If you choose one place like iTunes it’s fine (for now) but if you purchase from a variety of places it’s messy.

    I ripped all my DVD’s 5 years ago and sold the lot on Craigslist. I wish there was a way for me to download DRM-free HD files of movies online but there isn’t (I’m not going to buy a disc to do so) so sadly I end up torrenting. I’m not proud of it and would gladly pay money if some company provides DRM-free HD digital downloads. I have all my movies neatly organized on an external drive and I watch them via a Mac Mini attached to my HDTV connected by HDMI.

    UltraViolet was DOA.

    • Raising_Kaned

      There is something vaguely sad about someone’s movie collection being a cluster of files hidden away on some hard drive. Clutter-wise, it’s actually quite a sensible way to live — and I’m not making any sort of judgment on your decision (I’ll save that for the non-chalant way you name-dropped the Apple brand like some sort of corporate clone…douche) or anything, but I’d much rather thumb through someone’s physical collection and pick out something to watch than using a scroll-wheel on a mouse and double-click on a “virtual” title.

      That process seems like it would be a little alienating, although that’s probably just me being stubbornly old-school (or possibly retarded). I doubt many people younger than me make any sort of differentiation at all along those lines.

      • blairh

        Uh, I was just using Apple TV as an example. Kinda amazing how you connect that with me potentially being a ‘corporate clone douche’.

        Like you said, that’s just you being old school. I have a folder on my computer that contains a movie poster image of all my movies. Me and a friend or anybody else can casually browse the posters and pick a film. It’s pretty much identical to how I manage my music collection.

      • Brian Bouton

        I’m worse than an Apple corporate clone douche; I’ve stopped buying movies altogether after realizing they were coming onto Netflix Instant/HBOGo/Hulu often in 5.1 and HD.

  • Raising_Kaned

    “who care deeply whether a film that should be seen at 1.66 has been Blurayed at 1.66 or whacked down to 1.85, etc”

    Eh? This is akin reading a critical essay praising The Scarlet Letter, and then having someone interject at the very end, “that’s all well and good, but I certainly hold that bitch Prynne personally responsible for the root of ubiquitousness of body art in 21st century America.

    Double-you, tee, eff, Jeffrey??

    • Glenn Kenny

      It’s kind of hilarious that regardless of the actual topic, if Wells has a will to, he’ll shoehorn in some full retard 1.66 nonsense into it.

      • JLC

        I once made a crack to Jeffrey that the aspect ratio shtick was about the only trick he had left. He seemed genuinely perplexed. Now I think he could work aspect ratios into a discussion about making soup.

    • jedgeco

      You’ve got to admire, though, the way he (a) simultaneously tilts at his idiosyncratic windmills in an unrelated post, and (b) comes up with a definition of “connoisseurs” that makes the term apply solely to him, all in one sentence.

      • Raising_Kaned

        Oh, I admire it, alright…there’s a reason I keep coming back here after all these years. The dude really bores me — gotta give him that.

  • moviewatcher

    “2013 includes several features that aren’t precisely aimed at under-35 idiot males.”

    Because that’s the only kind, isn’t it Jeff?

  • Jeff

    I know its been mentioned a few times but I think a staggered pricing plan may eventually find its way into the fold for films like Before Midnight. I love the series but it only plays at high end theatres like the ArcLight where I am paying $15-17 dollars plus parking in LA. That is too much for a movie that works just as well on my 48 inch LED and would cost me $1.20 as a Red Box rental in 3 months. Maybe a film like Before Midnight costs $7 and a massively budgeted film goes for full price. Its kind of shitty to say The Dark Knight Rises is worth more than Before Midnight but lets be honest to most people it is and they are far more likely to pay more for spectacle.

    On a side note, I don’t know the numbers but Red Box and Netflix have got to be a huge problem for mainstream movies. If something isn’t a massive pop culture success why not wait 3-6 months and see it for free for a buck.

    • Raising_Kaned

      Staggered pricing by title is an interesting thought, but I really doubt you’ll ever see it happen.

      For one, you need to have many more usher/employees than are normally currently employed to enforce that policy. What’s going to stop me from walking into a multiplex and buying a ticket to Midnight and walking into Man of Steel. My own sense of honesty, I suppose, but: A) that’s not something you want to rely on in any business model, and B) this would be a nightmare scenario for most actual theaters, who can keep as little as 10% of actual box office receipts for a movie opening weekend.

      And when you say “full price,” if they’re going to charge less for something like BM — real hot tickets (like Catching Fire, or Avengers 2) are obviously going to run $3-$5 more than they currently are.

      $15-$17 plus parking?? Don’t they have, like matinees or discounts in L.A. AT ALL? I don’t think it would even be possible for me to pay $17 to see a movie where I live, even if I tried (night screening on top of IMAX and 3-D surcharges probably adds up to around $15 here, not that I ever do that).

  • Mr Bohemian

    due a shortage of old movies on pressed discs ive started collecting mod’s. I own a couple of blue rays but i really hate the idea of buying something i already own. in the old days movies weren’t around like they are now and the prints looked like they were run every projector from here to Timbuktu so i feel lucky to see a rare film in a less than perfect form. i don’t mind

  • Brian Bouton

    Can we also admit that quality television is largely killing off DVD and theater revenue? What exactly motivates people to leave their home when they have Mad Men, Game of Thrones, Homeland, Nurse Jackie, Boardwalk Empire and Breaking Bad?

    I’m also going to speak heresy and say that movies are often one-night stands in comparison to the committed relationships, and subsequent payoff, of a television series.

    • Raising_Kaned

      I’m a one-night stand kinda guy.

      Also: TV series rarely end well. When’s the last time one actually ended in a satisfying way that lives up to its original promise? Rarely — if ever — happens. More often than not, they limp their way through a disappointing season 4 and entirely limp season 5.

      Also…I feel like the issue of cable bills needs to be addressed. Everyone here always bitches and moans about the price of going out to the cinema. Do you realize that you’re probably paying close to $1,000 (if not more) a year? That is like going to the movies at least 100 times (and really more like 200 if you’re smart and cheap about it).

      I realize that the HBO surcharge on top of cable is relatively cheap, relatively speaking — I understand the concept of “sunk cost,” and that’s honestly probably worth it.

      Sometimes this whole “golden age of TV” really seems like a lie, though. Breaking Bad, Mad Men, sure…but Homeland?? WTF is Nurse Jackie? There’s no possible way it’s anywhere near as good as Nurse Betty. Any time you have a “movement” of any kind there are always a handful of shows that get swept along in the pseudo-momentum, and 5 years later everybody sort of cringes in embarrassment about how they spent so much time on something that added up to soooo little.

      Example: does anybody still watch (or even think about) LOST?

      There are certainly exceptions, but “teevee” is mostly for assholes who spend too much goddamn time standing around watercoolers and don’t understand sports.

      • Brian Bouton

        Ha! I don’t blame anyone for being a one-night stand kind of person. Television is a commitment, and I wholeheartedly agree that most series don’t end well, but like life, it’s about the beginnings and the middle.

        I’m living in some rarefied air using another person’s HBOGo account and only paying for Hulu Plus (Criterion Collection!) and Netflix Instant. Cable is definitely expensive, and I forgo that due to the cost and because a majority of it is crap apart from a good number of excellent series.

        It’s pretty hard to regret any of the HBO series I’ve watched: Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Deadwood, Band of Brothers, The Pacific, Game of Thrones, Girls, and probably many more but I’m too lazy to go to the site to see.

        I still love movies but I’m being honest that great television is often what keeps me from plunking my ass down in a movie theater. Also, there just aren’t that many movies I want to see lately. 🙁

      • JeffMc2000

        I can only really handle one or two drama series at a time. it has nothing to do with quality, just how much time and brain space I want to devote to something. The idea of watching 23 episodes of something like Lost every year for seven years is nauseating to me, and I say that as someone who didn’t mind the half season or so of episodes I watched. It’s just too much.

        The 10-13 episode a season cable model is much better, but even then I find I can live without most of these shows in my life. I mean, it comes down to: I can watch a season of Homeland, or a half dozen spaghetti westerns or noirs I’ve never seen. Which is the more productive use of my time?

        I will say that the best tv comedies are funnier than just about anything that gets released theatrically these days. I’d take Arrested Development or Curb Your Enthusiasm over whatever Todd Phillips or Happy Madison movie is playing at the moment.

      • Eloi Wrath

        Cable’s ridiculously expensive, no doubt about it. Even John McCain for some reason has taken the issue up and is pressing for ‘a la carte’ packages. Would make way more sense, but the cable companies will never go for it as long as the 25-year old girls watching E! and Bravo reality shows produced for peanuts are essentially subsidizing all their boyfriends’ sports due to the outrageous cost of televising games.

        Lost will actually hold up pretty well. People still reference it and think about it affectionately, in the same way people still enjoy old sci-fi stuff like Star Trek or the X-Files.