The Big Picture, Ben Fritz

Eamon Dolan, 2018, 304 pages, $ 23.00US, ISBN 978-0-544-78976-0 2018-04-15

From 2001 to 2018, I was lucky enough to be a professional movie columnist for two French-Canadian magazines. My mandate was genre-focused, but as the years went by, my column increasingly used simple movie reviewing as a launchpad to broader considerations about the evolution of the movie industry. In late 2016, to celebrate fifteen years of quarterly columns, I decided to ditch reviews for one column and spend 5,000 words taking a data-driven look at the overall state of movies as of late 2016, in-between online distribution, the evolution of blockbusters toward serials and the sheer amazing number of movies produced every year. If you’re curious and can read French (or feed the URL to the surprisingly competent Google Translate), you can read the column in its crime/thriller focus at Alibis, or its SF/fantasy variant at Solaris.

I offer the preceding paragraph not as puffery (after all, budget cuts being what they are, both of these columns have since been shut down and I am now that most pitiable of creatures; an unemployed movie reviewer) but as feeble credentials in considering Ben Fritz’s The Big Picture, which takes a step back from box-office grosses to take a look at the state of the cinematic art, or rather how the industry is remaking itself in the image of what moviegoers are now willing to pay for.

Fritz and I may have been looking at the same topic (and we did reach some similar conclusion), but I’m just a schmuck with Internet access, whereas he’s a movie financial correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, with impeccable industry sources and a privileged perch overseeing every Hollywood twitch. He was also willing to delve deep in the leaked emails from Sony, using those as a surprisingly effective way to give life to his overall thesis.

His book, in short, argues that Hollywood (i.e.; the “big six” studios that release the big-budget movies that dominate the global box office: Disney, Fox, Sony, Warner, Universal and Paramount) has been seduced by the bigger-is-better mentality. It now refuses to directly produce movies that are not assured hits (as much as those can be predicted) and is constantly doubling down on the examples set by previous box-office records. If Hollywood releases mid-budget movies not tied to existing universes, it’s usually because they bought distribution rights from the picture’s true owners—they will not, by themselves, finance a wholly original new creation. (The high-profile exceptions, such as Dunkirk, rather prove the rule—Warner Brothers has an ongoing relationship with screenwriter/director Christopher Nolan largely based on his success adapting the Batman franchise to the big screen.)

The exemplar that Fritz uses in demonstrating his thesis is Disney. Earlier than anyone else in town, Disney realized that not taking creative risks meant not taking financial risks. Acquiring everything popular under the sun (such as Lucasfilm, Marvel and Pixar) was only a part of a strategy that also involved strip-mining its own back catalogue for live-action adaptations of animated movies, and hopefully making sequels to those movies as well. The counterpart of Disney’s acquire-and-regurgitate strategy was Sony (formerly Columbia)’s steadfast support for middle-budgeted movies developed in-house, under the watch of influential producer Amy Pascal. It worked until it didn’t, and as Fritz details (largely through the emails leaked from Sony’s own system), it only took a bad run of movies for Sony’s corporate investors to demand change, and for Sony to follow the leaders in financing only sure returns on investment. In Hollywood, nobody is chasing after mere millions dollars in profits—anything less than billions is a career-ending disappointment.

Much of it has to do with the gatekeepers not necessarily liking their own products—whereas, at a time, legendary figures in Hollywood studios loved movies as much as they did business, the new corporate structures values management prowess first—artistic interest is entirely optional. As a result, not only has Hollywood completely abandoned the idea of making art for art’s sake (even for definitions of art that limit themselves to “tell a good story”), but the traditional one-of-the-money-one-for-the-art barter system is also disappearing.

This has a number of visible consequences on the movies that are offered to audiences. Never mind the sequels, the spinoffs, or the reboots—once franchising rules the game and movies merely become another element in a multi-pronged multimedia strategy, it’s clear that whatever makes movies special is also negotiable. Forget about definitive shocking endings when there is always the possibility of another episode a few years later. (See: Avengers: Infinity War) Forget about directors taking control of the medium when they are merely hired to execute a studio strategy with the minimal amount of fuss. (See: Ron Howard and the Solo debacle.)  That also explains why so many young directors fresh out of an independent low-budget film are hired for massive tent-pole pictures: studios are hiring people they can boss around. (See: Josh Trank and the Fantastic Four trainwreck.)

If there is a glimmer of hope in this business, goes on to explain Fritz, it’s that at a time when studios have abandoned cinema as they’ve perfected it, others are picking up the pieces. Digital filmmaking and post-production has lowered the cost and obstacles to make a professional film. Now, digital distribution of movies is also changing the landscape: Independent producers can shoot a film modestly, and release it widely to mainstream audiences on streaming platforms. Many of the Oscar-nominated movies of the past few years (which we’ll use loosely as a yardstick for artistic achievements, cynical quips be damned) have benefited from such arrangements. Additionally, distributors like A24 are doing well picking out good movies on the festival circuit, streaming platforms such as Netflix and Amazon are bidding high to distribute trickier projects, while social media discussions are changing the traditional marketing circuit.

Which is saying that, as much as the current situation is terrible compared to the past (and about to get worse as the number of major Hollywood studios is expected to get smaller—Disney is purchasing Fox, and Paramount is perennially on the list of acquisition targets.), it’s not quite as bad as we think. It remains to be seen how long the current model is sustainable—there’s been a few signs of franchise fatigue recently, and it wouldn’t take much more than a handful of box-office bombs to change things forever, à la Musicals crash of the 1960s.

It’s also an open question (muses this former reviewer) as to whether the recent shift toward massive global blockbusters has replaced cinema as we know it, or is merely a super-category imposed on top of the existing ecosystem. Movie theatres have evolved to take on the blockbusters, but in sheer number of movies produced every year and the general quality of the best of them, we’re still seeing an active art form. (Now that TV series are picking up movie storytelling and adapting it to a much longer running time, it’s also arguably allowing movies to focus on the core strengths of the medium without trying to stretch things over too long a running time.)  Hollywood decoupling itself from movies may be the best thing to happen to the art form.

As we wait to see how things will shake out, I can’t recommend The Big Picture enough as an intelligible guide to a messy period for movies. Fritz knows his topic, writes clearly and can back up his thesis with telling examples. The book wasn’t just a pleasure to read—it’s also a resolutely modern book, in the best sense of the term, in how it’s willing to let go of the past in order to better talk about the present and the future of movies. I found it invigorating, and I suspect it’s going to become a reference text to anyone who’s trying to understand the way Hollywood is transforming itself at this point in time. I’ve been recommending it left and right, and I’m glad to include it on my shelf of essential books about Hollywood.

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