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Blockbusters, conservative movies, small budgets, etc - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
Blockbusters, conservative movies, small budgets, etc

So an article I read this morning quoted George Lucas saying that it made no economical sense to make blockbusters anymore. The article's notion is that Hollywood has decided to make low-budget movies for niche audiences, that don't need huge numbers to make a profit.


How very depressing, especially since it seems plausible. Just what we need--more niches. 'Cause really, we all have too many shared cultural moments, ya know? [/sarcasm]

I've often thought that the niche-ing of radio has had badly negative consequences for music. There's less cross-fertilization among genres, and, worse, less of a shared culture. There will never be Beatlemania again, not because no one is ever going to be as talented as lads from Liverpool, but because now those same boys would be marketed strictly to white teenage girls in suburban markets, packaged as a boy band, and disdained by the alternative stations, the rap stations, the classic rock stations, the country stations, the techno-funk stations, the industrial stations... you get the picture. Nor will any of the artists whose music is played on those stations have a chance to win over new fans, who are split into camps about what kind of music they'll listen to. Crooners may have a chance to strut for a national audience in American Idol, but when the show's over, they'll be novelty acts. My mom has told me that there were little feuds about whether you liked the British Invasion, beach music, or Motown in the sixties, but pretty much everyone could recognize and sing along with "I Wanna Hold Your Hand," "Little Old Lady from Pasadena," and "Stop in the Name of Love," and you can bet that the artists knew one another's songs as well. Now? Not so much.

Are movies really destined to go the same way? Here are your gay-market movies, your religious-market movies, your political-market movies, your left-wing movies, your right-wing movies, your movies about the midwest, and so on. The essence of the blockbuster--what made it pleasurable--wasn't its high artistic quality (though some have it; being a blockbuster doesn't preclude art). It was the sense of someone finally breaking that demographic hammerlock. It can still be done--both Narnia and the Potter movies have vastly mixed audiences, in age, sex, and ethnicity--but if we have Hollywood saying, "Oh, screw it, I can't figure out what these people want!" then it's not going to be done anymore. When that happens, we lose one of our few remaining positive cultural rituals. I mean, it's great to read anything or see any movie you enjoy, but only shared phenomena give you the opportunity to engage in one of life's great pleasures--talking to other people about books and movies you both enjoy. One of the things I love best about HP is that I can talk to people in nearly any walk of life about these books, and there's always a sense of animation and interest in the conversations.

This article, far from suggesting that conservatives should take over the making of blockbusters, said, "Oh, well, we could make twenty indie-looking movies like the ones that were nominated for Oscars on the budget of one Narnia." Sure... and they'll be watched only by people who agree with their take on life already and feel like patting themselves on the back for being smart and elite, as opposed to those dolts who watch other sorts of movies. This is not the way to work toward a truce in the culture wars. That's just escalation.

Frankly, I think stories should be above politics, about deeper, more important matters (and I think that's why so many of the movies that beat the demographics are fantasy and science fiction--it's automatically a step removed and therefore not likely to trip as many "tribal" reactions). While Narnia told a Christian story (the Christian story), that story is not inherently liberal or conservative. Its concerns aren't that transient. Its conflicts aren't between right and left, but between greed and sacrifice, faith and despair, power coveted and power willingly relinquished for the good of others... things that are of concern to every human being, because they are the essential questions of what it means to be human. (And yes, of course, other religions also ask them. We just happen to have a recent example of a movie which uses the Christian form.)

Yes, a pretty star and splashy effects can bring in some money initially, but the place where you lose the "economic sense" that Mr. Lucas was apparently talking about when you're making big budget movies that behave like niche movies. Trying to study demographics and target an audience will get you basic revenue--there's no arguing with that; you can target a demographic--but if you're thinking you're going to get the kind of over-the-top boffo box office associated with the true blockbuster by doing it, think again. That only happens when you get too big for a niche, which is never going to happen if you're busy making yourself small enough to fit it.

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kizmet_42 From: kizmet_42 Date: March 14th, 2006 04:05 pm (UTC) (Link)
The death of the blockbuster has been prophesized many times. Then we get a Narnia or a Harry Potter or a Star Wars and the critics crawl back into their holes.

I think that Hollywood is too addicted to the money, and if they think an investment of $$$million is going to bag them a zillion, they'll do it again in a heartbeat. It's probably cyclical, based on the length of memory of the studio execs.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: March 14th, 2006 04:19 pm (UTC) (Link)
Think there's any chance of music rebounding, then?

:makes hopeful face:
kizmet_42 From: kizmet_42 Date: March 14th, 2006 04:37 pm (UTC) (Link)
That's harder to say, because making the music is the domain of the musicians.

Have you read the book Blink? They talk about a singer in there who the heads of the music world and the besk known artists think is great and ought to make it in the music world big, but the audience didn't like him, so he's [poof] gone. If the audience won't support someone, then we're left to the legendary musicians making the "new sound" like Paul Simon did with the African musicians in the 80's.

With the rise of internet radio, we see the niches becoming niches of niches. I listen to a Celtic Christian radio station - can you get smaller than that? B)

Without Ed Sullivan, I agree, the Beatles and Elvis aren't going to have the big effect anymore. If there are any cross-genre names out there now, I can only think of a few: Elton John and Phil Collins* come to mind, but the songs that everyone knows, like "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" or "Against All Odds", are at least 20 years old (GYBR is probably closer to 30). But thinking about it, how many times in history has the world experienced a "Sargeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" event? It was a unique phenomenon.

Blockbusters have the same effect as Ed Sullivan. They put the product out there, but it's up to the audience to vote with their feet.

*Michael Jackson would have been added to this list, but he's managed to get himself thrown off. McCartney's on there, but if he wasn't a Beatle, would we have endured Wings?
sreya From: sreya Date: March 15th, 2006 12:06 am (UTC) (Link)
I think the advent of services like the iTunes store that lets you preview music and buy it very cheaply is helping to open up music genres again. I know I've personally been exposed to vastly more music since the introduction of Napster, and then the iTunes store itself. A friend will mention a song, or I'll hear it somewhere, search for it, decide I like the preview (or not), and then usually look into what else the artist does. Back when your only choice was hit-or-miss in the music store with tapes or CDs (or *gasp* records! which I don't remember) it felt like a bigger gamble to try new music when purchasing something.
dalf From: dalf Date: March 15th, 2006 03:39 am (UTC) (Link)
I can't really see the connection you seem to have made here. That the niche has somehow harmed music. Niche consumption of music is a response to radio stations who play Green Day 35 times a day on 15 diffrent radio stations and no track longer than 2:30.

It has made many of us leave radio, I for one did not flee to satelite radio but to mp3s and suggestions from my friends. I use http://last.fm and it helps me find huge amounts of music that I would not have found otherwise. There is a depth to the media avalibe in our culture that we don't frequently see, the long tail made avalible though modern technology is making our music and movie and tv options richer than they have ever been. It does mean that we will have fewer "shared cultural moments" but the truth is that most of those shared moments are not real. Some executive somewhere decided that we were going to have that moment and tried to manipulate it into us.

If LOTR had not been so closly protected for so long and written in a era before big media then it would have been war of the worlds.
ladyvorkosigan From: ladyvorkosigan Date: March 14th, 2006 05:11 pm (UTC) (Link)
This article, far from suggesting that conservatives should take over the making of blockbusters, said, "Oh, well, we could make twenty indie-looking movies like the ones that were nominated for Oscars on the budget of one Narnia." Sure... and they'll be watched only by people who agree with their take on life already and feel like patting themselves on the back for being smart and elite, as opposed to those dolts who watch other sorts of movies. This is not the way to work toward a truce in the culture wars. That's just escalation.

I see what you're saying, but at the same time couldn't some of those Indie movies turn out to have wide appeal? If they're just movies that are for people who feel like patting themselves on the back the problem isn't that they're Indie or small budget, it's that they're bad movies.

For the Oscars this year we did get one example - Brokeback Mountain may not have been everyone's cup of tea, but it certainly became a shared and instantly recognizable cultural reference for reasons having nothing to do with big, epic budgets.

Although I'd miss movies like Narnia and Lord of the Rings if they were never made again too.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: March 14th, 2006 05:24 pm (UTC) (Link)
I don't know that Brokeback has the kind of nationwide appeal that I'm talking about--what did it make, $70M? I'd wager that was mostly in blue states, too. I couldn't tell you the guys' names, and I only know anything about it from hearing Jay Leno riff. It looked to me like a standard romance (except featuring gay guys), and several people have talked about the pacing being badly off. Most of the people who've talked about how great it is are people saying, "Yes, but it's gay guys! It's a big step in gay liberation!" as opposed to "Hey, what a fun movie!" That's what I mean about preaching to the choir.
ladyvorkosigan From: ladyvorkosigan Date: March 14th, 2006 05:29 pm (UTC) (Link)
Well, I was thinking less in terms of seeing the movie and more in terms of recognizing it. When it comes down to it I know a shocking number of people who have never seen Star Wars but yet everyone knows who Darth Vader is and would recognize a SNL skit based on him the same way they'd recognize a gay cowboy one.

I thought it was a great movie and I was expecting a lame and preachy issue movie, but that's neither here nor there. :-)
sophonax From: sophonax Date: March 14th, 2006 06:19 pm (UTC) (Link)
Most of the people who've talked about how great it is are people saying, "Yes, but it's gay guys! It's a big step in gay liberation!" as opposed to "Hey, what a fun movie!"

Wow, really? All of the buzz I've heard regarding Brokeback has been exactly opposite--maybe "fun movie" isn't the exact phrasing used, as it's pretty depressing, but I was finally persuaded to go see it by a number of reviews and a whole bunch of friends telling me that it *wasn't* just a thinly-veiled civil-rights declaration, but told a complete, elegant, and complex story. I think the fact that it's getting framed as only of interest to the gay community/people who are interested in gay issues tells much more about the people doing the framing than it does about the movie itself.
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fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: March 14th, 2006 08:06 pm (UTC) (Link)
Well, I liked two of the last three SW movies (disliked RotS, though I did my honest best to get past the misogyny). The indie movies I've seen have had bad pacing and very small themes, though I don't write off the possibility that someone could independently deal with something I find interesting--it's just not what I associate with "indie" with (mostly I associate it with run-of-the-mill movie-of-the-week things about sexual confusion or politics that don't really use the full scope of the medium).

I'm not saying there's no place for niche films. We all enjoy an occasional moment of feeling superior to the moronic little plebes who just Don't Understand (I didn't say that... no, of course not...). But the blockbuster does something different and creates a social moment.

And actually, I agree about the "calculated" ones--there's a reason some blockbusters go bust big time (Wild, Wild West, anyone?), while other sail through, and it's not because of marketing. It's because the stories hit a nerve and get people talking.
camry_1 From: camry_1 Date: March 14th, 2006 08:44 pm (UTC) (Link)
I keep trying to digest in my mind the idea that "Hollywood has decided to make low-budget movies for niche audiences, because they don't need huge numbers to make a profit" as expressed by a man whose last movie cost $113 million to make, and has grossed $849 million worldwide. Obviously he isn't proclaiming the death of the blockbuster; He is very aware of Star Wars' success. Perhaps he is just trying (again) to distance himself from Hollywood? Just claiming to be a rebel?
lilacsigil From: lilacsigil Date: March 15th, 2006 12:04 am (UTC) (Link)
I've often thought that the niche-ing of radio has had badly negative consequences for music.
It could be worse. Here in my part of rural Australia we have two stations. One plays chart toppers (but not rap) and eighties music. The other plays chart toppers (but not rap), eighties music and a talk show in the morning. Yay. I'd love some niche radio, or just some variety.

Seriously, though, I think a lot of the niche effect is nothing to do with the movie, just the marketing. For the size of the movie, Brokeback Mountain did very well, and people are certainly talking about it. I'd rather see the studios trying to put a bit of excitement back into the blockbusters, LOTR style.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: March 15th, 2006 03:53 am (UTC) (Link)
As long as they don't let Peter Jackson near Tolkien again, I'm all for more excitement. But that's not my blockbuster mind speaking--the movies certainly busted blocks--just my horrified LotR-fan brain still whimpering in a corner. ;)
dalf From: dalf Date: March 15th, 2006 03:26 am (UTC) (Link)
I read this (or a related) article and came away with a totally diffrent message. I was infact encoraged, pleased and filled with hope that the the entertainment industry might be starting to move back twards art and away from excessive commercialism. The key aspect of it is partly exposed in what you say above being a blockbuster doesn't preclude art though I would submit that adding despite all evidence to the contrary at the end.

The newyork times wrote a piece a few months ago about the decline in movie ticket sales and not once in the whle article was piracy mentione. The reason they gave? The movies that are being made now simply suck. They really do. I disagree with the idea that indy means niche obviously there is some degree of cooralation there since niche films don't have as many outlets, but its not the same thign as being equivlent. Infact I will say that I specifically do not think that its the niche aspect that is important here. I think its more of a freedom from commercialism, you points about he drawbacks to niche marketing are well taken but what you leave out is that in the mainstream the the art has become the marketing. Far from a situation where artests mingl and influence eachother and drive eahother to greater heights of creativity it is a place where the target audence is the first consideration and the content second. How many blockbuster movies have you seen recently where you could not help yourself form thinking "they added that so they could make the video game, oh and that for the toy". Jar Jar Binks?

All the ill effects you have listed, while associated with niches of a sort are the result of big media doing niches. Independant media does not mean far out there and strange, though it can. There will never be Beatlemania again, but not for any one reason. Technology and culture are at a place right now that any one of a handfull of reasons woudl be sufficent to never see such a thign again. Not the least of which is the least common denomanator pre-manufactured garbage that the media industry produces now days, garenteed to sell at least X but equally garenteed not to approach that level of greatness.

The implication I took away form what Lucas said was that "the strangl hold on our culture is starting to loosen and access to all sides of media is comming to more and more people". So mine is a sigh of anticipation.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: March 15th, 2006 04:05 am (UTC) (Link)
Actually, Jar Jar had a function--he was the holy fool. Given that it was in the wake of The Matrix, his inclusion was bound to be unpopular, but because he was a legitimate part of the story, he was included.

In general, I want to see something big when I go to the theater. A big story, a big picture, big effects, big characters, big themes. And hey, I shouldn't associate indie with "niche"--Lucas, after all, is an indie filmmaker. However, the way it's used is almost exclusively to refer to these "small" movies that make me think more of intimate little experimental theaters than movie screens.

It makes me incredibly sad to think that we've lost the ability to share a culture. It's not just Beatlemania... we're talking about the same instinct that brought us the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Elizabethan theater, Greek drama and comedy, the poems of Homer... these were shared tropes of cultures, and we're losing ours.
dalf From: dalf Date: March 15th, 2006 04:13 am (UTC) (Link)
You should go see Nightwatch if you can find it in yrou area. It is in the strange situation where the the fact that is is subtitled is an asset as well as a liability. In anyevent you will like it I think given that you liked LOTR and Harry Potter. My second post about it has links to trailers and such.

I am not convinced that what we currently have culturally is the same type of thing as what existed culturally to produce the historalcal thigns you refrenced. Elizabethan theater may have been a "for the massess, least common denomanator" sort of thign at times but I dont think the same can be said of theot others. Even if Greek drama was a sort of common man sort of thing there were philsophical principals and ideas served. The almight dollar is the only thing hollywood serves (and I think a place was made in the story for Jar Jar rather his filling a place that was needed, have you heard of The Phantom Edit?)
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: March 15th, 2006 04:40 am (UTC) (Link)
I disagree about blockbusters only serving "the almighty dollar"--I think the ones that do fail (Wild, Wild West is my favorite example, though we also get things like The Last Action Hero and others). You forget, with the exception of RotS, I'm a prequel fan... I actually preferred them to the original and found them more thought-provoking. And yes, I spent a lot of time ranting my head off about The Phantom Edit when it was first out. I'm afraid that prequel-bashing drives me quite insane, and I have defended Jar Jar since 1999... much to my annoyance, as I do not think it should need defence.
may_child From: may_child Date: March 15th, 2006 04:52 am (UTC) (Link)
How many blockbuster movies have you seen recently where you could not help yourself form thinking "they added that so they could make the video game, oh and that for the toy". Jar Jar Binks?

Jar Jar was created to a) entertain the children because Lucas knew the more complicated, politically-oriented plot would go over their heads; and b) because Lucas wanted to see if a character with a large role in a movie could be rendered entirely with CGI.

Jar Jar broke the ground that the overrated Gollum walked away with the credit for. The media knew they could get away with saying Gollum was groundbreaking because who was going to have the guts to speak up for the much-derided Jar Jar?

Oh, speaking of Gollum -- WETA, aka the "little FX house that could," the "underdog that beat out the big, bad ILM," actually outsourced a lot of its FX work to other houses, including the "big, bad ILM" while doing LOTR. It also brought in a lot of ex-employees from other FX houses, including ILM, to train its staff.

"King Kong" was the first movie that WETA worked on with an entirely in-house staff.
dalf From: dalf Date: March 15th, 2006 05:28 am (UTC) (Link)
I think most people credit gollum more than JarJar because most people do not see Jarjar as having been a character at all. He was a gimmick to most of us (and a blatent one at that). Plus I think Gollum is a more significant from a litraray standpoint, more significant to the films, and a larger technological leap (how much screen time did JarJar really have and how expressive was his face), in a way that makes the comparison somewhat (but not totally) invalid.
From: (Anonymous) Date: March 16th, 2006 04:38 pm (UTC) (Link)
I don't remember ever reading a single thing crediting Gollum with breaking the ground of being the first CGI character. There were a lot of references to Jar-Jar and Dobby the House Elf in discussions of Gollum. He was credited for being a character that worked in ways they didn't.

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aebhel From: aebhel Date: March 16th, 2006 05:33 pm (UTC) (Link)
I guess the problem with this is that it sort of assumes that going back to "The Good Old Days" is really going to fix anything. The pre-manufactured garbage the industry puts out now is no worse than the pre-manufactured garbage that it put out forty years ago. The reason a lot of older music is better is that the better music is what survived. Same with movies.

I don't see any real evidence that blockbusters preclude art. The problem with blockbusters is that it's all out in the open; any screwups are pretty well-known. With niche films, they have to be pretty good before anyone pays attention to them, so the lousy ones don't get much press.

There are plenty of strange movies that are extremely good; there are intelligent social commentaries that are entertaining--but there are also too many "niche" filmmakers out there that think all they need for a good story is some dysfunction, repressed sexuality, and gobs of angst. Please tell me how that's any better than car chases and explosions. Not only is it not creative, it isn't even fun.

I'm sorry, I just don't buy into the idea that popular culture is by definition stupid. That's kind of like saying that the public is stupid, which is really a sort of arrogant way of looking at the world.

dalf From: dalf Date: March 17th, 2006 02:55 am (UTC) (Link)
I guess I am saying that popular culture is more comercial now and less an accurate reflection of society than ever before. From yoru first paragraph I take it you disagree.

I don't think the "Good old days" were free of a lot of the negative thigns I have been talking about but I also think that 5 companies did not own 95% of all media (including movies/newspappers/books/music/tv) 50 years ago. That in itself is enough to impact content. My main point is that if there is something a social movement or technological or whatever that is pushing in the other direction that is not a bad thing. Nore do I think that such a "corrective" force is likley to totally dismantal the status quo.

I could be wrong but there is it.
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malabud From: malabud Date: March 19th, 2006 10:10 pm (UTC) (Link)
I think Lucas (and the article) is overlooking something here. Hollywood is slowly starting to ignore what American audiences want. The actual number of Americans who go to the movies on a regular basis has not gone up in many years, despite the rise in population. Except for movies such as RotS, HP, and Narnia, there's a real slump at the box office. And Hollywood doesn't really care.

Oh, you may have some hand-wringing from various studio execs, but they know where the market is heading. The real money is now made internationally. American audiences are losing the power to determine what movies Hollywood makes. It used to be we could vote with our ticket-buying choices, and Hollywood would listen. Well, they aren't listening to us anymore.

A movie may do horribly in American theaters, but then it'll make a few hundred million dollars internationally. If one expands the so-called niche market worldwide, well then, it's not quite so niche. It's easier to make a niche movie that appeals to international audiences and fewer here at home than to make a movie with wide appeal both here and abroad. It's harder to please a lot of people rather than just appeal to those who agree with you and share your world view.

So, I think the niche movie trend is misleading. Such niche films can often do quite well internationally, especially if they depict Americans or the American military in a poor light. Americans aren't very popular in quite a few places around the world, and Hollywood is definitely capitalizing on that.

SciFi and Fantasy films continue to do well here, and I do not see that situation changing any time soon. Just look at the revived Batman franchise, the proposed completion of the Chronicles of Narnia, and the anticipated three or four more sequels in the Spider-Man series. But these are all tried and true characters and series. They're all adaptations coming from already existing sources. In fact, that may be the only way true blockbusters (as far as the U.S. box office goes) will get made anymore. Only after a book or series enters the popular culture will Hollywood be willing to make an adaptation for the big screen. It's not a gamble at that point, after all, but a sure thing. No longer will a movie be the original source material, like it was with Star Wars.

You're right that the removed-from-present-reality aspect immediately creates a broader appeal. In fact, I cannot think of a recent blockbuster that did not have some sort of fantasy element in it. The most recent one that comes to mind is Titanic, and even that was not set in the present reality, but ninety years in the past. Of course, Titanic came out ages ago in Hollywood years.

I have hope, however, that the present trend is not permanent. There will always be the lone brave filmmaker who will be independent and dare to make an original blockbuster that will do well in the U.S. Such a filmmaker will have to look outside of Hollywood for funding and possibly talent, but it will happen. Eventually.

Sorry for the long comment. I guess I just had a rant in me waiting to get out. *g*
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