Spielberg: 1, Harvard: 0

Hollywood used to know what Americans wanted.

Then came the new diversity of moving-going taste and preference. Hollywood was in trouble.

In the words of Tom Hanks:

“Nobody has any idea why people are going to see a movie. Nobody knows what’s going to be a hit or what’s going to be irrelevant. There are no new models. The new paradigm in Hollywood is that there is no new paradigm.”

Hollywood made a fateful decision. It gave up figuring out what people wanted or might like. It resorted to “shock and awe,” aka the blockbuster.

Hollywood said, in effect, we will give you story lines so fat and familiar, stars so big, effects so special, and marketing so inescapable, you will be FORCED to come see our movies.

steven_spielberg_masterclass_cinematheque_franc%cc%a7aise_2_croppedThe strategy worked…for awhile. Then trouble set in. About 3 years ago, Steven Spielberg warned,

“There’s eventually going to be an implosion—or a big meltdown. Three or four or maybe even a half-dozen megabudget movies are going to go crashing into the ground, and that’s going to change the paradigm.”

There was a sharp intake of breadth through all those beautifully capped and polished teeth. Could the end be in sight? Could Hollywood’s make-shift strategy now be coming apart? Could it be time to return to reading American taste and preference instead of trying to force it?

It was a critical moment. The industry was poised for change.

Spielberg had opened the conversation.

And a Harvard Business School professor stepped up to slam it shut.

In Blockbusters: Hit-Making, Risk-Taking, and the Big Business of Entertainment, Professor Anita Elberse argued that Hollywood should continue to produce “a smaller number of expensive products aimed at mass audiences, rather than a larger number of cheaper ones aimed at selective niches.” “Forget the worry-warts,” she seemed to say, “You had it right the first time!”

Elberse declared:

“The future of blockbusters in the entertainment economy shines bright.”

BusinessWeek called her the “Harvard professor [who] knows why the bloated blockbuster will never die.”

The Spielbergian conversation stopped right there. The Harvard Business School had spoken. Return to your battle stations, everyone. Keep making blockbusters. You are good to go ever bigger and blockier.

That was three years ago.

The numbers for the summer of 2016 are in. And the results are clear.

Spielberg 1, Elberse 0.

In a piece called Hollywood’s Summer of Extremes: Megahits, Superflops and Little Else, Brooks Barnes delivers the bad news, noting

“a cavalcade of summer disappointments, including “The BFG,” “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows,” “The Nice Guys,” “Ghostbusters,” “The Legend of Tarzan,” “Independence Day: Resurgence,” “Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising,” “Alice Through the Looking Glass,” “Warcraft,” “Ice Age: Collision Course,” “Hands of Stone,” “Star Trek: Beyond” and “Now You See Me 2.”

One particular blockbuster was particularly disappointing: Ben-Hur cost Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Paramount Pictures at least $150 million and failed to shock or awe anyone.

The summer of 2016 was bad news for several players including Warner Bros., Sony, Universal, 20th Century Fox, and Paramount. All suffered smaller or zero profits.

With it’s deep regard for the social sciences, we might have thought the Harvard Business School would have seen this coming. Some things are obviously short-term plays; short term because self destructive. And indeed it now looks like the blockbuster approach is consuming itself. Barnes quotes Doug Creutz: “There are now so many sequels that they are cannibalizing each other.”

What’s new and especially alarming about the Barnes’ essay is the possibility that people are now just done with blockbusters and to this extend with Hollywood.

Barnes describes the last hope of the film biz: those people who go to the movie theater and only then decide what movie to see. Could it be that Hollywood has destroyed even this precious, last group of enthusiasts? Perhaps now that all movies are blockbusters and that all blockbusters are the same, “blockbuster exhaustion,” aka “Hollywood exhaustion,” has set in. And this would mean that Hollywood’s shock and awe strategy has damaged the entire movie ecosystem, alienating even the deepest loyalists, the ones who sustained the industry through thick and thin. If this is true, the crisis is deeper than we thought.

What now? It’s time to put Spielberg’s call for a new paradigm back on the table. Have we learned anything in the interim? I don’t mean to be mean, but with the benefit of three years hindsight, we might say that Elberse’s book actually looks like a block buster in its own right: a large, relatively unthinking gamble on an idea that was already dead. We may not know that the new paradigm is going to be. But it’s pretty clear we can’t go with “same old, same old.”

The tragedy of Elberse’s book is not just that it was wrong. Anyone writing well with good intentions is entitled to be wrong. The tragedy is that Elberse’s book arrived at the very moment the industry should have been responding to Spielberg’s call for a new paradigm.

Time to get the debate going again. And there’s no time to lose. Careers, fortunes, and an entire industry hang in the balance.

4 thoughts on “Spielberg: 1, Harvard: 0”

  1. I read Elberse’s book & I was not impressed with the overall strategic analysis.

    There are only so many entrants that can afford to play the mega blockbuster game & make it pay off.

    After a while, its success draws more entrants — which end up dividing the audience’s attention.

    And so, less people go.

    Yogi Berra had it right: “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”

  2. The better question is when did movies stop being central to the culture. The Hollywood entertainment nexus is one of America’s two great contributions to world civilization, the being the political thought of the American founding. My first-pass answer is that HBO, especially 1997’s Sopranos, showed that long form narrative television could do things that the movies either couldn’t do or had stopped doing. Then came social media and the complete shattering of a mass market. The idea that you tube has “stars” with millions of followers/views who are largely unknown outside their own circles is really odd to me. Then we have the decline of white America and the decline of middle class America which probably killed off the prime audience for movies.

  3. I know some folks at a fairly successful (still) studio. Their take is just tell a story worth telling and do it well. If they (the studio) can’t figure out just how, or if people stop listening to stories, it will be time to pack it in.

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