Pass the Popcorn: How Bad Will Hollywood Get?

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(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Check out this excellent essay on the way franchises have transformed Hollywood. It is not, I promise, just another long lament that there are too many comic book movies, too many sequels, etc. The author, Mark Harris, is thinking seriously about Hollywood’s business model, and there are lots of data and interesting quotes I haven’t seen elsewhere. Seeing the list of franchise movies already announced from the major studios really was an eye-opener. And he makes an insightful point about how Hollywood is now so skilled at creating anticipation that it’s forgetting to provide the payoff. What used to be payoff is now only a calculated part of a larger plan to keep building anticipation for the next product.

Now! That having been said, I think Harris is too pessimistic, for two reasons.

1) While Harris acknowledges that not all franchise movies are bad, and some are very good, he nonetheless seems to assume as a basis of his case that artsy movies – that is, movies intended to be serious rather than mere ephemeral entertainment – are, on the whole, more likely to be very good than franchise movies. This has not been my experience. Even if we discount the value of entertainment and judge strictly on “artistic merit,” I think franchise movies are about as likely to be very good as artsy movies. Not because franchise movies are necessarily good, but because artsy movies generally fail to have much more artistic merit than franchise movies. My wife and I were avid moviegoers during the very height of the independent movie era, and we saw a lot of them. Most of them had “entertainment value” rather than “artistic value.” They were witty or exciting or whatever, and we enjoyed them while we were watching them. But most of them were not great art.

Harris estimates that about 150 franchise movies will open in the next six years. At the end of the article he concedes that some of them – “more than two and fewer than twenty” – will be “very good.” Let’s say “more than two and fewer than twenty” is ten movies. That’s less than two very good movies per year, so it’s a conservative estimate. If so, by his own showing one out of every fifteen franchise movies is “very good.” I’d put up that track record against the arthouse any day.

2) Harris assumes consumer tastes will not revolt against the rise of the franchise. Franchises rule because they are financially rewarded. Must this remain so, even after franchises have squeezed everything else off the studio slate? I see no reason to think so, and every indication that consumers are already clamoring for something else. The idiots who run Hollywood just haven’t figured out how to give them anything else. But someone will, and when they do, the bubble will pop. (Barriers to entry in the entertainment sector are rapidly approaching zero.)

On both points, Harris’ argument fatally rests on the assumption that movies made for the purpose of having artistic merit rather than for the purpose of pleasing general audiences are more likely to have artistic merit. Yet there is little empirical evidence this is the case.

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One Response to Pass the Popcorn: How Bad Will Hollywood Get?

  1. I think Lynda Obst (Sleepless in Hollywood) has a decent take on what Harris describes: current franchising is driven by the need to finance movies in advance and guarantee international revenue as anything else.

    Given the long history of script doctoring, I’m skeptical of claims about low- vs. high-budget films. Everything’s a crapshoot, and Ted Sturgeon’s law is a good rule of thumb. Go ahead and enjoy your next Marvel movie.

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