The New Abnormal: Tentpoles, Pre-Awareness, and the Crisis in Hollywood




IN THEIR 1992 MOVIE The Player, Robert Altman and Michael Tolkin satirized a Hollywood where studio executives think in clichés, operate on fear, heap abuse on all who come to pitch ideas, and dream of a day when they can simply dispense with writers altogether. “I’m just saying,” a hot new executive comments impatiently, “there’s time and money to be saved if we came up with these stories on our own.”

Fast-forward 20 years — past the independent film revival of the 1990s of which The Player was a part, past the rise and fall of the DVD market, and into today’s multi-platformed digital age — and the satire has, against all odds, become reality. Or rather, it has been surpassed by reality.

Not only are the big studios dreaming up their own projects — superhero action movies mostly, with a smattering of vampires, wizards and future-fantasy teenage gladiators. Not only have they stopped relying on writers to provide the initial spark (or, some might say, any spark at all). They have severed most of their deals with established screenwriters, stopped taking all but the rarest of pitch meetings, and largely given up on what was once a Hollywood staple: the mid-budget character-driven drama or comedy.

In short, the world of The Player — the inane pitches, the production deals, the constant interaction between executives, agents, directors and writers — has vanished, replaced by a reality that, in any other cultural moment, would seem inherently absurd. Most poignantly, a movie like The Player — intelligent, scabrous, funny, reliant on sharp writing and spirited ensemble acting — could not now get made.

One survivor of this crazy transition is the veteran producer Lynda Obst, who made The Fisher King with Terry Gilliam, Sleepless in Seattle with Nora Ephron and helped launch Sandra Bullock into international stardom with Hope Floats. She has also written incisively and wittily about her industry. In her 1996 bestseller, Hello, He Lied, she described Hollywood as “a funny place […] funny as hell” and proceeded to chronicle the fear, uncertainty, duplicity and sheer exhaustion of putting together movie deals.

At least there were still deals. Obst now has a new book, Sleepless in Hollywood, that grapples with a world in which it’s no longer possible to make movies just because they promise to be good. Obst’s grown son, a literary manager, calls that attitude “so 2003.” Indeed, Obst has lost her long-standing production deal with Paramount and now works independently under the Lynda Obst Productions shingle.

The shift from what she calls the “Old Abnormal” — Hollywood’s traditional dysfunctional self — to the “New Abnormal” is profoundly economic in inspiration. The big money is now in the international market, which used to represent about 20 percent of global revenue but now accounts for close to 80 percent. And the quickest way to sell seats in emerging markets like Russia and China is to provide audiences with known quantities, like superheroes and adaptations of mega-selling book series aimed at teenagers and young adults. The industry describes this, with an unwitting nod to the dystopian nightmares of Philip K. Dick, as “pre-awareness.”

Every big movie project is now a “tentpole” — a noisy crowdpleaser whose main job, from the studios’ point of view, is to attract enough business to justify a sequel, followed ideally by a whole franchise of follow-up movies. Hollywood has been making these ever since Jaws and Star Wars inaugurated the era of the blockbuster in the 1970s. The difference now is that they make nothing else. Movie theaters show either tentpoles or so-called “tadpoles” — movies made outside the studio system that are cheap enough to fly under the radar and build their audience either through the reputation of the director and the stars or because of exceptional buzz on the festival circuit. The middle area, “the original one-off, non-sequel, non-remake, non-comic book franchise piece of business” where Obst made her livelihood for 30 years, where studio moguls once invested their artistic passions as well as their commercial fortunes, has been eradicated.

That has left Obst out in the cold, and it also raises a troubling question. Has the movie industry given up its artistic ambitions and turned itself into a mere purveyor of glorified carnival rides? “This,” she says of the transition, “is about an industry that for more than half a century has been the caretaker of an indigenous art form possibly relinquishing responsibility for that art form altogether.”

Once a year, of course, the industry still comes together for the Oscars and a celebration of its own artistic excellence. But this, Obst remarks, has become a charade, at which studio bosses look on with misplaced pride at film projects they long since spurned. The bosses, she says, “don their finest and collectively remember what they are making isn’t product or money, but film. Then they do a contrite walk of shame in the morning and have amnesia by lunch.”

The most talented writers, actors, producers and directors are rapidly decamping for television, and the technology of home entertainment systems has eroded the old argument that nothing beats the visceral experience of sitting in a movie theater. That, in turn, raises a question that Obst does not quite address head on. Have movies, the defining art form of the 20th century, themselves become obsolete?

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Andrew Gumbel: In Sleepless in Hollywood, you liken the current crisis in the movies to a giant cosmic eruption out of nowhere; what in astrophysics is known as a “violent phase transition.” When exactly did this sudden rupture occur?

Lynda Obst: We experienced the existential moment a little bit after the business moment. They were not exactly congruent. The existential moment was the writer’s strike [of 2007-08] running smack into the recession. That’s when everything came to a standstill. The writers started to lose their deals. Everyone in this town was at odds with everyone else. People were speaking in tongues, nothing made any sense. As long as the strike continued, executives had nothing to do. They were being cursed at daily as they went to work. They were experiencing the effects of the collapse in the DVD market, which was the business moment of the rupture. They had a lot of time to examine their books and their business model and they realized that their profit model, which relied on DVD revenue, no longer held. They’d had very bad years since 2006. Now, thanks to the strike, they could cite force majeure to sever deals. The first to go were with the writers. They asked themselves, do we even need writers after this is over? If our profits are now coming in from the global market — replacing the profits from the DVD market — then we need a totally different kind of movie. The new projects, the big action franchises that could sell worldwide, were studio-generated, not writer-generated. Writers could be hired after the project was underway; they didn’t need to be kept on contract. And once the studios decided they didn’t need writers, they didn’t need the producers who used to bring the writers to them. All they needed producers for now was as a source of money to launch franchises. If they didn’t have that kind of money, they were no longer useful.

AG: In the new Hollywood — what you call the “New Abnormal” — executives frown on movies they describe as “execution-dependent.” What does that mean? How can a project with as many moving parts as a movie not be execution-dependent?

LO: It means they want to hit a big bull’s eye, not a small bull’s eye. The purpose of a movie in the New Abnormal is to establish a sequel and then a franchise. To get there, studios are looking for pre-awareness — which means starting with a superhero or comic hero or an established IP. That’s an intellectual property like Harry Potter or The Hunger Games; what we used to call a book. Something people have already heard of and will be excited about just because the movie exists. Movies based on an original idea, starting from scratch, are incredibly hard to market. You have to open them in America first and buy a lot of television time. Internationally, it’s completely impossible. An original idea — a drama, or a romantic comedy — can’t be sequelized. It’s a one-off. Now, a great script that’s execution-dependent can still get made by what I call the “Mount Olympians,” by the five or so directors on the A list. Or they can get made as “tadpoles.” But they are not commissioned any more. And that’s one of the saddest differences between the Old Abnormal and the New.

AG: You say that, in the New Abnormal, “the title is the star.” In other words, it’s about Spider-Man or Superman, not the actor playing the part. Is the star system disappearing, or are we just swapping the traditional big stars of the silver screen for a larger pool of small ones on TV?

LO: The star system is certainly getting broader. Every time you have unknowns in big megahits, they become the new movie stars and broaden the pool. They can help finance new movies. Movie stars are a form of pre-awareness, just as IPs are. But here’s the difference: Movie stars don’t guarantee that a movie opens abroad. IPs essentially do.

AG: If stars can’t guarantee a movie’s box-office numbers, what are they good for?

LO: They are powerful allies to the independent market. In fact they are critical in movie-making, more critical than ever. Without them there would be no independent market. One-offs would not get made. It would be a much sadder state of affairs than it is. It’s not that their power has diminished, it’s just different.

AG: If the big tentpole movies are such sure bets they are not even “execution-dependent,” how come some of them fail — sometimes spectacularly?

LO: In America, word of mouth spreads so rapidly when a movie opens, thanks to social media and the internet, that it can trump all the marketing efforts by a studio. If the studios make a bad Superman, people are not going to go. That may not be true of the growing foreign market. But the domestic audience is smart and very selective about tentpole movies. They can tell you which ones are good three days or a week before they open. It used to be, when word of mouth was slower, that a movie star was sufficient to open a movie. Now the star is neither necessary nor sufficient — that’s the difference.

AG: You ask, despairingly: “How did it become easier for someone who knows no one to make a movie for $150,000 than for someone who knows everyone to make one for $20 million?” That’s obviously a distressing state of affairs for career producers like you, but isn’t there an upside? Doesn’t it mean that with enough talent any filmmaker can break through now? Hasn’t the system become more accessible?

LO: It’s good and bad. Technology taketh and it giveth back. It’s fantastic for getting a directing job — those used to be impossible to get. My son represents somebody who did a short, got it on YouTube, got 80,000 hits and is now directing a movie for Universal. There’s been a tremendous democratization of distribution with all these new online venues and the gatekeepers mean much less. However, if nobody sees your movies what good does it do you? I have a dear friend who made five movies this year but no one saw them. I fear for these “tadpoles,” because everybody’s working for free, everyone’s working so hard and working the festival circuit. In the Old Abnormal, these filmmakers would have come into the system and had my career. Now they can’t. I just don’t know which is better. You can make a movie, but what do you do with it?

AG:  You say movies are an endangered species in Hollywood. Is that reversible?

LO: I like to say I’m the last Hegelian. I do think nothing stays static, nothing is permanent. This town in particular is constantly changing. Whatever formula or trend is in, the seeds of its destruction are always contained within it. Right now tentpoles make $200-250 million even when they are bad. But it’s going to become clear which kinds of tentpoles don’t work, and which ones shouldn’t get made. We’re going to see tentpole fatigue and consumer exhaustion. That’s what happens when an idea gets commoditized and fetishized. How many times can you see the same cities destroyed? How many ways are there to destroy them? There’s an aspect to this that is ridiculous. But that ridiculousness is going to make itself clear.

AG: Is it true that the bean-counters have taken over the studios? Or is there still a place for hard-nosed visionaries like the studio moguls of old?

LO: One of the reasons the change has happened is that executives wanted to take gut out of the equation. And I think you can’t take gut out of the equation. The best studios have always been run by people with gut. And some still have it. They don’t choose not to make good pictures, they’re just aiming for the biggest markets. But it doesn’t have to be this way. If instead of making one $200 million picture, a studio makes five $20 million pictures and one $50 million picture, with writers they believe in, like they do in television, then the studio with the best gut wins. That’s the way it should work. We’re going to see some synthesis of the Old Abnomal and the New Abnormal. Some aspects of globalization are terrific. We can have stars from all around the world in the same pictures, and that’s going to break down a lot of prejudices. All we need to do is give them better product.

AG: You say Hollywood still makes noisy franchise movies because nobody else can. How long will it be, though, before others can, and do?

LO: China wonders that too. We’ve exported our special effects talent in an effort to make movies cheaper and cheaper. We’ve exported it to Montreal, to New Zealand, to South Korea. And, increasingly, what we are seeing is that these countries do not want to be dominated by American product. This is part of the big dialectical change to come. China, for example, has a quota on our product. And as soon as they can copy us and make their own blockbusters they will. Mexico ditto. South Korea ditto. The Indian market is dominated by its own hits and of course Bollywood is long established. The question is, how long will American films dominate these film markets when the intention of all these countries is to build their own industries so they can make American-type product? Once they do, our own domestic market will become more important again.

AG: As home viewing systems become more sophisticated, what about the movies will remain irreplaceable? Do you think people will still be going to the movies in large numbers in 30 or 50 years, or will it become a minority pursuit devoted to showings of the classics, a bit like opera now?

LO: There’s a lot of thinking about the future of the movie-going experience. One direction is the development of destination theaters, with reclining seats and really good food and alcoholic drinks with waiter service — more of a screening experience. Another is allowing people to watch first-run movies at home, at a price that still works for the distributors. But, one way or another, people are still going to go to the movies. Sure, people who prefer to do so will stay home. But teenagers just want to get away from their parents and be with one another, and the movies provide that opportunity. And the excitement of the communal experience will not diminish. It was so much fun to watch Bridesmaids on the opening weekend in a room full of people who were loving it. That’s true for comedies, and it’s true for a lot of powerful dramas. Movies that aren’t made for that communal experience will probably stop being shown in theaters altogether. But the movies have never been more of a mass experience than right now.

AG: How can you say that when entertainment is increasingly being consumed by individuals sitting in front of their screens?

LO: Movies are one of the great escapes — and that includes escaping from this social media enclosure we’re in. There’s almost nowhere you can go without people being in their own private Idaho, tied to their iPhones. But, at the movies, they turn off their phones and scream at the screen and talk to each other on the way in and out. Movies are one thing we do that brings us together.

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Andrew Gumbel is a Los Angeles-based journalist and writer.


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