Hollywood, Remakes & Reality TV
As the 2005 decline in film revenues continues, it is amusing to see the pontifications and proposals of Hollywood insiders regarding declining revenues. It's apparently up to them to attempt to figure out why exactly they aren't raking in the millions and millions of dollars they expect for such epic movies as King Arthur, Alexander or Kingdom of Heaven . After all, don't they have star power? Aren't they following the same methodology used to produce such successful epics as Titanic, Gladiator and Lord of the Rings? This weekend (the first weekend of May 2005), the box office took in just $77 million - the worst result for early May in at least five years according to Exhibitor Relations (a company that tracks these numbers for a living).
Now, it would be fun to juxtapose that with rising sales of home theater systems and make a claim that people are finding it increasingly easier and more enjoyable to stay at home and watch movies. However, I don't think that's entirely accurate. It can be shown through studies sanctioned by the Consumer Electronics Association that domestic HTiB sales are increasing at a rate of 10% growth per year (with 2004 showing around $900 million in sales). To be completely honest, I just don't think these systems necessarily qualify as "theater killers". No, I think the problem runs a bit deeper (and possibly simpler) than that.
Anyone who has turned on a television or gone to the movies in the past several years can relate to the bandwagon effect that permeates the film and television industry. In theatrical releases, this usually shows up in movie-pairs or "copycat movies" (very often being released in the same year). Here are some prime examples:
- Dante's Peak & Volcano (1997)
- Deep Impact & Armageddon (1998)
- Entrapment & The Thomas Crown Affair (1999)
- A Bug's Life & Antz (1998)
- The Truman Show & EDtv (1998-1999)
- Tombstone & Wyatt Earp (1993-1994)
- Mission to Mars & Red Planet (2000)
- A.I. & Bicentennial Man (1999-2001)
- Saving Private Ryan & The Thin Red Line (1998)
- The Abyss & Deepstar Six (1989)
So what was the point of this exercise? For film, the problem is two-fold. One issue has to do with short term competition over loose script ideas (basically hot topics or trends) resulting in two separate film companies going after the same general concept. The idea that this many duplicate film plots (and believe me they aren't all listed here) are merely products of random chance is absurd. Often, but with exceptions, one company is attempting to bring an original or complete concept to market within the original timeline and budget set forth from the production schedule, while the other is quicker about getting their hot product concept to screen.
Take another look at the list above and notice that the movie which came out first is italicized. The movie with the highest domestic revenue is bolded. Now think about which of the two movies in each bullet was the better of the two. Try to determine (or look it up at The-Numbers.com ) which one had the higher budget and made more money? See a trend? No? Me neither. Hollywood has a long history of gambling - and an even longer history of putting out movies in pairs. Who is driving the concepts that suddenly become 'hot items' we may never know. What we do know is that this process merely splits the box office and results in, more often than not, and obvious "winner" and an obvious "loser" (with the losers often failing to recoup even the production budget in domestic sales). People see movies for the story - and no matter who gets to market first - the best story is going to win.
So Is Hollywood Completely Bereft of Ideas?
This leads us to the second, and larger, issue that drives the paradox of rapidly dropping film revenues - that of ideas . Perhaps borrowing more from the television industry, production companies find it more and more lucrative (so they believe) to simply supply what they think people want to see - and then keep providing it until someone goes bankrupt or gets fired. Lately, this trend has been an ever more dense field of remakes. Now, don't get me wrong - remakes aren't a bad idea. But remakes of remakes are perhaps pushing the limits of sanity. Apparently unable or unwilling to conceive of and fund original ideas, Hollywood believes that we should simply regurgitate older scripts (and TV shows, and plays, and third-grade school recitals, etc), add a dash of star power and stir. The resulting film should rake in the money - right? Wrong. While some obvious successes (think Titanic or Ocean's 11) keep Hollywood fired up and ready to spend whatever it takes to make the third version of Psycho with full 3D effects - taking a look at the top 100 highest grossing films of all time should show once and for all that at least partially original scripts yield the highest box office numbers. Of the first 25, Titanic stands alone as the only significant live action remake. People like original scripts - but Hollywood, apparently, likes to pay script re- writers and special effects artists.
If you have any doubt as to whether we're coming out of this dearth of originality, just look at the lineup coming around the bend to a theater near you:
- War of the Worlds (2005)
- Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)
- The Pink Panther (TBD)
- The Longest Yard (2005)
- The Bad News Bears (2005)
- Bewitched (2005)
- The Honeymooners (2005)
- Dukes of Hazard (2005)
- Superman Returns (2006)
While Hollywood looks at this downward trend, they see less risk in making sequals, remakes and adaptations. I see a self-destructing pattern that will only result in more bad films until Hollywood collapses under its own weight and, as usual, blames the consumer, home theater industry, and online downloading for their failure to turn large profits for their distributed gemstone films. Ridiculous? Yes. Predictable? Yes. How long do we have? It's already happening. According to Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations: "It does take more to get people out of the easy chair and to the theater; movies have to be so much more compelling. DVDs and home theater create more of an anchor to keep people at home. There's a little bit of that going on, and when there's more competition for eyeballs, it's a lot more of a challenge."
Some on Hollywood think that simply adding more special effects and 3D should make you run to see the latest films. This problem is not going away any time soon. Are they all clueless? No, thank goodness. "Nothing has turned on the audience yet," said Tom Sherak, a partner in Revolution Studios referencing this month's apparent slump. "It's happened many times before, where the movies come out without great word of mouth. What's happening is the same people who usually come that first weekend have been coming, but they seem to go away quickly because the movies are not generating a broader audience." Now there's a concept we can all sign off on: people don't like to pay good money to see lame films.
Television and the Programming Bandwagon
Let's talk about television. In this media, repetition occurs more as a genre, of which we are now treated to the era of "Reality TV". The idea behind most reality TV is simple - take a person off the streets (usually one or more of the "little people") and turn them into something they aren't... It might have been a great idea, but it is now sucking the life out of television as we know it since every network, cable channel and person with a handy-cam is getting in on the action. This now long-stale concept features the following stellar "original" programming that I've broken down by topic:
- I want to be famous: American Idol, Americas Next Top Model, The Apprentice, American Juniors, Next Action Star, My Big Fat Obnoxious Boss, Last Comic Standing, The Contender, Making the Band
- I want people to watch me live: Big Brother, The Osbournes, The Real World,
- I'm just competing for a cash prize: Survivor, Fear Factor, The Amazing Race, The Mole, My Big Fat Obnoxious Boss, Monster Garage, Monster House
- I'm selling my self for a cash prize/date: The Bachelor, The Bachelorette, Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire, Average Joe, Joe Millionaire, Married by America, My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiance, Temptation Island, Who Wants to Marry My Dad
- I'm a loser and I need help: Queer Eye for the Straight Guy/Girl, Ambush Makeover, Nanny 911, Supernanny, What Not to Wear
- Come watch me do what I do: The Restaurant, The Casino, American Chopper, American Casino
- Wholesome and fun: Faking It, Pimp My Ride, Trading Spaces, MythBusters, Surprise by Design
What does this all prove? Basically that movie and television studios are relatively lazy. It's so easy to jump on the proverbial "bandwagon" that this tendency to ride the wave of popularity is simply too irrisistible for many producers and distributors to ignore. With the 'bottom line' driving the ultimate decision making process - and a desire to "piggy-back" on what success others may have stumbled upon, the film and television industry love to bring us repetitive and mundane repackaged materials over and over again until the market stops watching altogether and insists on a new direction (we're hopefully getting close to the end of a cycle now in television). Unfortunately for us, Reality TV is also cheap - which is making its shelf-life last longer than anyone would have thought. Hopefully, however, it is coming to a close in the next few years - at least for the obnoxious shows.
So what can I do to change this? Well, for starters we have been selected to be a Neilson Family - and we are jumping in full force to get our viewing habits into the reports that go to the decision makers. We're just one voice, but as a selected representative of the pool, we represent thousands of viewers - and that's something to take seriously. What's your part? Vote with your pocketbook and viewing habits and make sure that you aren't encouraging mediocrity in the marketplace by making it easy for Hollywood to pocket your hard-earned dollars. When a good film arrives, however - go out and spend the money to see it in the theater. The theatrical experience can be wonderful when the story is good and Hollywood gets it right.