The northern summer of 2013 was a bad one for Hollywood. After Earth, The Lone Ranger, White House Down, World War Z and Pacific Rim were among the million-dollar turkeys. And you may have noticed the DVD shelves feature more TV series than ever before.
So what’s going on?
Cinema has been in crisis for 70 years. In the 1950s, it responded to the challenge of television with bigger, brighter and brasher spectacles. But the problem with big-budget spectacle is obvious: when you bet the bank, it’s easy to lose your shirt.
A few massive flops such as Cleopatra and Dr Dolittle in the 1960s were enough to frighten investors and producers off the strategy.
In the place of that approach, Hollywood discovered low-budget movies with the kind of adult themes television of the 1960s and 1970s couldn’t or wouldn’t handle. From Easy Rider (1969) to Taxi Driver (1976), the strategy worked, but a handful of expensive bombs such as Heaven’s Gate (1980) changed LA executives’ minds again.
But the TV problem persisted. How could you get your would-be audience to leave the sofa (and the proximity of the refrigerator) to go down town to the movie theatre? In 1975 and 1976, two films set the model for the future: Jaws and Star Wars. Spielberg’s shark story was more than a film: it was an event.
George Lucas’s first installment of his sci-fi epic went one better by opening up a new market for spin-offs: toys, clothes, games, theme-park rides and merchandise of every kind.
Best of all, both films created the opportunity to tell more stories with the same basic set up: what Hollywood would come to call a franchise.
The lesson was clear: parents might not be persuaded to get up off the couch, but teens everywhere could be persuaded to evade the watchful eye of Mom and Dad. For nearly 40 years, that wisdom has framed the way Hollywood has made movies.
Reducing drastically the number of films they make each year, the six major studios, who together control more than 80% of global box office, concentrate on the 12-to-25 age range.
The major target is boys, especially younger teens who tend to visit the cinema in groups, with a significant subsidiary market for slightly older teens on dates, and girls heading out for an evening together.
Older film fans talk about genres such as westerns and science fiction. The industry talks about blockbusters for boys and date movies and rom-coms for girls.
The rise of computer games in the 1980s and the internet in the 1990s increased competition for young audiences’ attention, already distracted by rock music, the revitalisation of the comic book industry in the 1980s, and a massive boom in consumer magazines in the same decade.
In the 1980s, video piracy rattled the business: in the 2000s the problem of piracy exploded, as an increasingly internet-savvy generation used file-sharing to access the movies the studios lavished so much money and care on.
The first strategic response by Hollywood was architectural. Loosening implementation of laws on cross-ownership starting in the 2000s allowed the majors to return to the theatrical end of the business, where they invested huge sums on new multiplexes, luxurious seating and state-of-the-art sound systems.
The second strategic response was marketing. Today, at least a third of the budget for a new release is spent on “P&A”, prints and advertising. Increasingly sophisticated teasers and trailers, reports from the set, leaks to the press and huge advertising campaigns jockey for the biggest possible success.
The focus of the campaign is the opening weekend. Top-budget movies not only have to open to big crowds; the opening weekend establishes the brand of the film, which will be essential for its long-term success.
Once the title, the logo, the specially-commissioned typeface and the carefully selected images have saturated television, billboards, websites, social media, newsprint and magazines, the stage is set for the longer haul of DVD sales and rentals, video-on-demand streaming, cable, satellite and free-to-air TV.
According to top industry scholar Tino Balio, that is where, in the 2010s, well over 60% of movie revenues are generated.
Films such as The Lord of the Rings and Avatar (whose second and third installments are in preparation for 2016 and 2017 release) are typical franchises in at least three senses:
1) Each film in the series remains open to a sequel.
2) Because of the gap between release dates, fans are likely to buy a previous instalment to get in the mood in advance of the latest episode.
3) The films are made with a lavish attention to detail that invites multiple viewings.
Franchises are good for studios. A one-off film is a prototype: as scriptwriting guru William Goldman famously said of Hollywood: “Nobody knows anything.”
If we could predict success, there would never be such a thing as a box office bomb.
But if your first Bourne movie is a hit, the chances its sequel will crash and burn are significantly lowered.
Add to this the fact that all the majors are now parts of multimedia conglomerates, and that a franchise based on an already-successful product has a much better chance of success itself.
Whether it’s a theme-park ride (Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean) or a comic book family (Warner’s DC Comics, Disney’s Marvel), franchises build on synergies with other branches of their parent companies.
In the mid-20th century, some major film companies shunned TV.
Others started making television, among them the wildly successful Disney, which brokered its music hits, theme parks and TV shows to expand into grown-up films and computer animation, and to acquire the US’s ABC television network in 1995.
This pattern was repeated through the relationship of Paramount with CBS, NBC’s with Universal, Newscorp’s ownership of both Fox Studios and the Fox TV network. Time Warner own HBO and the Turner network among other TV properties, and Sony, owners of Columbia, has also moved into television.
Television is no longer the upstart challenger, it seems, but another wing of the same industry. And that’s without factoring in the studios’ involvement in online, mobile and games media.
The youth market looks pretty much locked in. So why was the northern summer of 2013 such a tough one for youth-oriented blockbuster movies following a tried and tested formula?
The secret may just be that older audience that was left behind in the blockbuster boom of the 1970s, sitting cheerfully at home minding the store.
When the cable and satellite TV markets began to mature in the late 1970s, they were still dependent on advertising. But soon enough, execs began to notice the audience left behind by cinema.
Those people were happy to pay a subscription to see premium product, especially without the interruptions of commercial breaks. Back catalogues of classic movies and premium runs of new films were early entrants.
In 1997, HBO changed the game by launching its prison drama Oz, followed in 1999 by the first season of The Sopranos.
Suddenly, we had television that wasn’t dumbed down to meet the requirements of advertisers, that used the serial form to develop complex characters, and that addressed grown-up themes in an adult form.
By the 2000s, shows such as Band of Brothers, Deadwood, Angels in America and Six Feet Under had not only demonstrated the unfed demand for adult programming; they had staked a claim, with series such as The Wire, to the role once occupied by the popular social novels of Charles Dickens or Upton Sinclair.
As the top shows garnered awards and critical praise in the serious as well as the popular press, the shows became collectable items, much like great novels, to be viewed and savoured more than once.
Despite his success with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Joss Whedon’s sci-fi series Firefly was dropped after only one season, and as wily a judge of popular taste as Spielberg has consistently failed to ignite a TV franchise.
Is TV unsuited to spectacular fantasy? The success of the BBC’s revamped Dr Who and HBO’s Game of Thrones might suggest otherwise.
Is TV likely to go the same way as the “new Hollywood” of the 1970s, overwhelmed by teen action and superhero spectacle? Unlikely at present given the critical and commercial success of AMC’s Breaking Bad.
The reliable, comfortably-off audience for serious TV drama may yet trump that fickle youth demographic who stayed away in the summer of 2013.
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