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Are the movies really doomed? | Film | For Our Consideration | The A.V. Club

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The latest Cassandra is veteran über-producer Lynda Obst (Sleepless In SeattleContact), who has published a highly valuable (if somewhat shoddily written) insider’s take on the crisis, Sleepless In Hollywood: Tales From The New Abnormal In The Movie Business. The book helps to clarify why Hollywood films have become so humongous and so homogenous over the past few years. The shift started, Obst explains, when the bottom fell out of the massively lucrative DVD market less than a decade ago. In order to make up for all that lost revenue, the industry turned to booming foreign audiences—particularly those in China and Russia, where screens have proliferated and restrictions on Hollywood imports have greatly eased. Not long ago, foreign box office accounted for about 20 percent of a film’s gross; now it accounts for about 80 percent. (According to Obst, China will surpass America as Hollywood’s No. 1 market by 2020.) It hardly needs be said that movies with cultural specificity don’t translate well to non-English speakers. Accordingly, it’s now all spectacle, all the time.

Fortunately, we don’t have to wait for those talents to decide to stop playing, because they’ve already been kicked from the field. And now, after wandering the desert for a bit, many of them are dusting themselves off and finding other ways of getting work financed, ways less subject to compromise. For example, Richard Linklater, lost in the wilds of Hollywood for a time, made a comeback with the excellent, independently financed Bernie and Before Midnight; Kathryn Bigelow, who’d been making run-of-the-mill Hollywood action crap, finally came into her own with the independently financedThe Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty; even old duffer William Friedkin went indie and came up withKiller Joe—the best thing he’s done in decades. Granted, we’re a long way off from a new golden age, but every director that’s forced to go indie is a director better off than he or she was before.

Just take a look at last year’s theatrical slate: Almost all of the most interesting American pictures were from directors who emancipated themselves from Hollywood, either by choice or out of necessity: Paul Thomas Anderson enjoyed full creative independence on The Master by working with Megan Ellison’s Annapurna Pictures, as did Andrew Dominik on Killing Them Softly and Bigelow on ZDT. Joe Carnahan’s The Grey—a B-movie that took risks and stuck to its guns right to the end—was financed by Open Road, a new consortium of theatrical exhibitors (AMC and Regal) eager to see more medium-budget movies in the marketplace. Whatever your opinion of those pictures, none of them would’ve been made under the aegis of a studio or even one of the so-called mini-majors. 

Meanwhile, other, more industry-beholden directors are figuring out they can work with the studios by working around them. Robert Zemeckis got Paramount to finance Flight—not necessarily a great picture, but easily his most compelling, human-scaled work in years—by agreeing to the relatively modest budget of $31 million and by deferring his own fee. (Essentially, he bankrolled the picture himself.) Soderbergh did the same with his hit Magic Mike, which he delivered to Warner Bros. for the ridiculously low cost of $7 million. (His actors took deferred fees, too.) Both of those films, incidentally, made more than $100 million at the box office.

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