Tag Archives: Hollywood

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.

Justin Theroux, culturematic

The old career path was simple.  

Fix on an objective.  Commit body and soul.  Keep your eyes on the prize.  Stay at it.

No experimenting with other options.  No idle curiosity.  No putzing around.  In sum, no career wanderlust.  

Make a choice.  Stick with it.  

But for some Hollywood stars, this has changed.

Take the case of Justin Theroux.  He’s the one in the poster to the right (bottom row, far left).

Theroux wrote Tropic Thunder, Iron Man 2, and stars in the new comedy Wanderlust.  He also dates Jennifer Aniston (bottom row, second from the left).  

Rottenberg of Entertainment Weekly says:

More the most actors, Theroux is a moving target, bouncing between small roles and big ones, art films and blockbusters, dramas and comedies, TV and film.  ”I’ve had the most unpredictable career path — it’s really a career stumble,” says the actor, 40.

We have seen this pattern before.  In Culturematic, I write about the case of James Franco, an actor famous for trying a wide variety of roles and educational programs, all of this at the height of his career.

In Culturematic (out in May!), I compare Franco to Bethenny Frankel.  Both Franco and Frankel are experimental, trying a variety of things.  Whereas Frankel exhibits a simple opportunism, Franco appears to give us something broader.  Here’s what I say in the book.  

The point of Franco’s explorations is not celebrity. Indeed, he appears almost in flight from celebrity. More probably, his motive is curiosity. In the old Hollywood, stardom brought the actor a kind of completion. Nowadays, for some actors, it is seen to close off options and experiences the actor cares about. Franco doesn’t know what he needs to be an actor or a person. And he doesn’t know what he needs to know to stop being an actor. So he needs to find what’s “out there.”

For most of us this sort of thing would be take as a symptom of indecision, perhaps a refusal to commit.  For Hollywood stars, some of them anyhow, it’s a way of doing business.

Both Theroux and Franco have turned their careers into culturematics.  They are using it to search the world for options.  They are prepared to risk a certain blurriness of image to surface options that are otherwise hard to see.  There are to this extent treating their careers, once so simple and well defined, as adaptive exercises.  

This really was a bad idea when Hollywood was a simpler place, when ours was a simpler culture.  But now that our culture is so various and unpredictable, now that Hollywood is a more complicated, less scrutable place, it makes sense to do a career “stumble” as Theroux calls it.  This is an excellent way to discover and make contact with possibilities that would otherwise be invisible.  

First quote: Rottenberg, Josh.  2012.  It’s Time You Got to Know Justin Theroux. Entertainment Weekly.  February 24.  (I can’t find this article on line.  Sorry!)  

Second quote: McCracken, Grant.  2012.  Culturematic.  Harvard Business Review Press. (To be published May 15, 2012.  You may preorder from Amazon by clicking HERE.)

I think there’s a pattern here, but you decide

With thanks to Alf Rehn for copy editing the original.  

Calling all journalists (ok, some journalists)

If you were 22, recently graduated from the college of your choice, and fizzing with literary talent, where would you be headed?  Novels? Broadway? Off Broadway? Television?

Exactly. You would be headed for TV. This is where the action is.  (Let me read the following programs into evidence:

House, Modern Family, Mad Men, The Good Wife, Glee, Friday Night Lights, 30 Rock, The Big Bang Theory, Dexter, Fringe, The Closer, Weeds, The Office, The Big C, The Simpsons, Psych. Just for starters

TV is where people as vastly talented as Aaron Sorkin and David Milch now ply their trades. This is the Globe of the moment.  This is our London in the 16th century.  This is our Paris of the first half of the 20th century.  LA is it.  

A couple of days ago, when I was noting the sheer volume of good programs on TV, I failed to see there is no culture without structure.  It just didn’t occur to me that for Hollywood and Burbank to be turning out good TV, there has to be an influx of talent of every kind (writing, directing, acting, casting, etc.).  

Hence my image, here, of Hurricane Fred.  This is meant to represent talent being pulled from all directions into Los Angeles.  (Yes, I know, Hurricane Fred had nothing to do with LA.  Work with me.)

You say hurricane.  I say virtuous cycle.  The better TV gets, the more talented people come, and the better TV gets and the more talented people come…and so on.  

Which means at this very moment there has to be a 22 year old getting off the bus in LA preparing to make his or her fortune in this the great center of popular culture, make that American culture.  

Which means that there is one whopping story to be written here for Rolling Stone or someone, the story of great talent pouring into a city now prepared, sometimes, to make it welcome.  This means there are bars where aspiring writers meet to aspire.  There have to be places in town where talent eddies.  There has to be a whole lot of networking going on.  

If I were not preoccupied with other things, (the proposal for the new book is as of this evening officially done. Publishers, start your engines), I would fly to LA and start an anthropological investigation of LA and its literary subcultures.   So, I can’t.  How about you?