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Thursday, September 4, 2008

Is the Movie Business in Trouble?

Yes. It is. Let's have a reality check, Wavers.

As The Wave-inatrix is often wont to say, they don't call it show FRIENDS. Movie making is obviously a business. A huge business. A business which amounts to a significant percentage of California's economy. But business ain't so good lately.

Excerpted from The Wall Street Journal:

Last year, more than 600 feature films -- mostly independent movies not produced at a major studio -- were released theatrically in the U.S., up from 466 in 2002, according to the Motion Picture Association of America. That's an average of 2.6 more movies every weekend that are battling for the public's attention.

But those figures are just for the films that make it to the silver screen. Many more films, such as "Boyfriend," with big-name actors or directors never make it to theaters. More than 3,600 feature films were submitted for consideration at Sundance Film Festival this year, and while many of those are tiny digital flicks that never have a chance of commercial release, the number is up from about 2,000 feature submissions just five years ago.

The frothy marketplace means more choices for movie fans, and more headaches for a struggling industry. In 2007, domestic box-office revenue totaled $9.68 billion, up from $9.3 billion in 2006, according to box-office tracker Media by Numbers. Box-office revenue has grown since 2005 because of higher ticket prices, but attendance started dropping last year. This year, attendance is down 4.74% from the same time a year ago. Lower attendance should trim box-office revenues for 2008 to around $9.6 billion, Media by Numbers projects.

Today, the credit crunch is putting the brakes on outside film financing.

To read the entire article, click HERE.

If you are anything like The Wave-inatrix, being a creative, you might get through that article with a slight blah-blah-blah-Ginger* thing going on. But the upshot is pretty clear. The movie business is in trouble. Big trouble.

Living in Los Angeles, with premieres happening seemingly constantly, with billboards looming over every city block advertising the newest movie, with EW magazine arriving weekly with weeky movie reviews, fall movie previews, spring movie previews, Oscar movie predictions, etc., it's hard to tell. But the article excerpted above makes no bones about a hard, cold financial reality.

There's trouble. Trouble in Tinsel Town City.

So how does this reality mesh with my Unified Unicorn Theory of positive thinking? How does a writer maintain optimism in the face of hard, cold facts?

Read carefully, now, this is historic; it's a rare day when the Wave-inatrix has a negative point to make. Over time, I have had a handful of clients who are optimistic to a fault about the chances of their project getting made. And no matter what I say about the realities of the market, they absolutely INSIST that studios will clamor to make their project. Despite my warnings about the market and the commercial realities of the project. Part of me loves such determination and enthusiasm. And another part of me grows annoyed - you aren't HEARING me. I love that you love your project. I love your enthusiasm. But you need to get real about the perceived merits of the project and you need to get real about the fact that many, many superior projects are lined up in front of you and THEY aren't getting sold much less produced. I don't see this attitude as optimism, I see it as Willful & Foolish Wrong-Headedness. Or WFWH for short.

There's optimism and positive thinking and living in the Unified Unicorn Field and then there's WFWH; a stubborn refusal to accept that there are larger forces at work here.

As the director of The Script Department, it would be foolish, irresponsible and unethical for me to mislead my clientele into thinking that the market is wide open and that they have a greater chance, by far, then they really do of making a living as a screenwriter. It's Hollywood - in the best of times, for truly gifted writers, the odds are terrible. And right now it's not the best of times.

So how on earth can we, as writers, understand and acknowledge the reality of the marketplace:

...Hollywood executives fear the glut created by the recent spate of overproduction is going to be felt for at least a couple more years. Some people say the worst of the oversupply problem is still about a year away.

"We're at the top of the curve heading down," says Hal Sadoff, head of international and independent film at ICM, one of the major talent agencies in Hollywood. "We've seen many of these financial institutions, private-equity firms and hedge funds pull away from the industry. But the films that they have advanced are still in production, and it will take another six to 12 months for the market to regularize again."

- and also know that humans need stories and that we need to tell them? Why bother, right?

Well, here's some stuff to think about:

Venues for storytelling are shifting rapidly. Online mediums abound. Read this article from Variety about digital novels.

This glut is predicted to have repercussions for almost two years. And nobody knows what the market will look like after that. See above: venues. shifting. rapidly. And god knows what other unpredictable factors lie ahead of us. The price of fuel, the larger economy, the discovery of life on Mars, a meteor strike, the cure for cancer - we cannot know what the future holds.

It takes the average screenwriter, anecdotally, ten years or ten scripts (whichever comes first) to make a sale. So for those of you rearing to go (often pronounced RARING but this is a pronunciation issue; the horse REARS up at the bit or chomps at the bit, eager to go. Or bummed there's a sharp piece of metal strapped into its mouth.) you may have to cool your jets some and rethink the various mediums and venues for your writing. For Willful-Wrong-Headers, it's time to emerge from the Land of Nod and wake up to some realities.

There are many better writers than you. The market is very tough right now. It can take years to write a script with a great concept, executed well, that will be sold, produced and consumed by movie-goers. Still want to keep working on your writing?

On the other hand:

There are more outlets for writing today than ever before. For better or worse, a huge democratization has occurred. Frustrated you can't get your articles published in a periodical? Start your own blog. Lay waste to the competition with no pesky editors with stupid comments and late checks. Have a great idea for an SNL skit? Produce it yourself for the cost of a week's groceries and put it on You Tube. Want to write a novel but don't have five years? Write it line by line on your cell phone and publish instantaneously!

But here's the thing: if your blog My Brilliance Daily doesn't have good, entertaining content, nobody is going to stick around and read it. The more visitors you get, the more fun you have writing your blog. The fewer visitors you get deflate like a balloon.

If nobody clicks on your brilliant You Tube skit, Failed, Bitter Medieval Entrepreneurs, suddenly the joy is sucked out of the project. If a tree falls in the forest and nobody is there to hear it, does it make a sound? Not really. We writers seek not only to express but to entertain. We enjoy our validation. We like to know that you responded to our writing. Right? Right.

So despite the proliferation of writing opportunities, the cream will continue to rise to the top. Audiences gravitate to that which entertains them. And despite the economic realities of the movie business, people will always want to be entertained. It's as old as time. HOW that entertainment is presented has run the gamut from throwing Christians to the lions to CASABLANCA to improv comedy to Twitter.

There's big trouble in the movie business right now. What are you going to do about that? If you're in it for MONEY and FAME you should walk away right now. If you're in it because you have to tell stories and you can be flexible about the outlets for those stories, keep writing.

*Gary Larson Far Side cartoon:
The first panel is titled "What we say to dogs." A man is scolding his
dog. The man's word-balloon says this: "Okay, Ginger! I've had it! You
stay out of the garbage! Understand, Ginger? Stay out of the garbage,
or else!?"

The second panel is titled "What they hear." The drawing is exactly
like the first panel, but this time the man's word-balloon says "Blah
blah GINGER blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah GINGER blah blah
blah blah blah."

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Kirkland said...

I vehemently disagree with the premise that the movie business is in trouble. It may be on the cusp of being in trouble, but it isn't actually in trouble.

Here's why I think this: first and foremost movies are still the cheapest form of "entertainment" we have (well, okay, there's people watching and TeeVee, but I'm talking leave your house entertainment here). Everyday, of every week, of every month, of every year, there's a new opportunity to see some just released movie. Are they all great? Who gets to decide what great is? Are they all good? Dunno, what's your definition of good? Are they entertaining, you betcha--to somebody. Film (if you're a not a commoner like me) and movies (my preferred term) are still being made, financed everyday by someone willing to take a chance on a new or old writer, on a script or an idea for a script, just like it has been since the days of silent movies.

What may be in trouble (and I'm not completely sold on the idea that it is) is the studio system.

Studios, it may be suggested, aren't making movies, they're nothing more than glorified distribution systems, clearing houses for movies making their way to the marketplace. But at the same time there are tons of one-off production companies springing up to produce and distribute a specific movie only to disappear when that film is runs its course.

And then there's cable and the internet (which I'm not fully in agreement with as being the coming wave) as distribution power houses.

So, I don't agree with the Wall Street Journal, or any of the naysayers, or the pessimistic among us who think that the movie industry is in decline...

Instead, I see this business as being on the cusp of change, not unlike a hundred plus years ago when the birth of movies first started, a dawn of new day so to speak, that will redefine itself by forming new studios, smaller companies. that will weed out those unfit to to survive the growth that will certainly be our future.

All it will take to move toward that growth is a rejection of corporate bottom line thinking and a return to having studio/production companies who actually want to make movies.

And it'll happen soon enough, the transition has already begun--people are just confusing it with the industry being in "trouble."

Emily Blake said...

Everything I write I think of as an example of what I can do. I'd love more than anything for the scripts to get produced, but for the time being I just think of them as an expression of my best skills so I can land that job writing someone else's idea until I make my name.

That's my philosophy. Of course, first I still have to get a great script in the right hands and that has yet to happen.

Anonymous said...


Yes the landscape of cinema is changing.

A pro Reader I talked to said -- yes, cinema is changing drastically, forever. The future is grim and exciting.

He worked at a studio when LEATHAL WEAPON was a hot script. And he's one of the most respected Reader, today.

We, writers, must think like a CEO -- change for the better or else we will get fired.

Julie Gray said...

What a fantastic post, Kirkland. Thank you so much for your point of view. I have a feeling you are spot on. I hope so, anyway. Necessity is the mother of invention and we know one thing is true - audiences love the movies. So you're right, something has to shift here.

Dave Shepherd said...

There's a line in The Dark Knight that applies:

"I've seen now what I have to become to stop men like him."

As a writer, you'll see what you have to become to succeed, and the question is: Can you make the transition?

It's becoming more and more difficult to get by just on the quality of work.

When there is a tremendous amount of options people rarely pick the best, instead they pick the most known.

In my opinion, publicity for writers and directors is going to become more and more important.

I think that's going to be one of the major changes, and it started with Diablo. She's not the best writer in Hollywood by any means, but she's by far the most noticeable to those outside the industry.

That may be what we have to become in order to survive.

Julie Gray said...

This is a fascinating topic! Evolve or die. Willful Wrong-Headedness give me an eye-twitch because it not only does not acknowledge the realities of the industry past and present, it totally ignores the reality which is emerging. A whole new landscape. Not everyone thinks your script is GENIUS the way you do. The market was always tough and now, with a transition happening, writers really have to reinvent themselves and stay informed.

Dave Shepherd said...

I would also like to point out --

In times of change there is tremendous opportunity.

Change is one of the few things that works to even out the playing field.

Hitchcock came up during a time of change (sound), Spielberg came up during a time of change (camera movement), Shane Black came up during a time of change (spec script market explosion), Tarantino and Rodriguez -- both in times of change (independent market).

Plus, talent runs in cycles. A group of people tend to explode at the same time, not sure why.

It's been a while since we've had a "talent explosion".

So -- a time of change, and we're due for a group of talented people... the next three to seven years should be very interesting.

Things aren't getting worse, they're becoming different.

It should be interesting to see who's able to take advantage of the new opportunities.

Let's face it -- we're due for another "golden age" pretty soon.

Cross your fingers.

Kirkland said...

I'd also like to point out that screenplays are being bought all the time and that some people--case in point, Joe Eszterhas, the first screenwriter to fetch 3 million for a screenplay, and for whom Worst Screenplay Award was renamed "The Joe Eszterhas Dis-Honorarial Award," hadn't had a screenplay of his produced since 1997 (lone exception being Children of Glory in 2006) has sold an estimated 25, count 'em, 25 screenplays in that time for an estimated earning income of some 30 million dollars (30 million, kids), are making money in this business...

All I'm saying is, it's a rough and tumble business, getting paid for your hard work s the goal--the rest is a bonus.

And, it's no different now then it was 10 years ago, or 20 years ago, or 50 years ago, and it won't be any different in the future--people will sell and people will buy. The only difference are the ames on the checks.

So, to reiterate my previous ideas on this subject, I don't think the business in "trouble," no more so than it has been at any other time in history.

Faces and names change, but the game is the same: write it, sell it, and move on to the next project. That's all you can do, everything else is just everything else.

Dave Shepherd said...

"Faces and names change, but the game is the same: write it, sell it, and move on to the next project. That's all you can do, everything else is just everything else."


Love that.

"It's all the same... only the names will change."

Screenwriters have a huge advantage over almost anyone else in the industry -- we get paid regardless of whether or not the movie comes out.

Sure, we get MORE if the movie comes out (and we get all the right credits and stuff), but even if it never comes out, we still make money.

Effectively, we have pay or play deals automatically in place.

Anthony Peterson said...

The movie business is but a small piece of a larger pie called "the entertainment business". We face fierce and irreational competition from within, and a host of other forces competing for the consumer dollar -(Google "Porters Five Forces")

The challenge for writers is to dream of new ways to define the entertainment experience.

Im working on it.

Mike Scherer said...

I’m of the opinion that what goes around, comes around.

In the early fifties the nay-sayers predicted that television would be the demise of movies -- didn't happen.

I don’t have enough information – or savvy – to know IF Hollywood is in trouble. I only know this: Want to sell your script? Write the best script you can.

Keep Writing,

Gnasche said...

Hopefully I don't cross that fine line between interesting and annoying, but...

Since you pointed out the "raring to go" malapropism, I guess it's okay to point out the "chomping at the bit" phrase had always been "champing at the bit" until people started saying chomp because they were more familiar with the word.

Also, according to the researchers at QI (Stephen Fry's quiz show in the UK), there is no evidence that Christians were ever pitted against lions for public entertainment.

Julie Gray said...

Hi Gnasche - no, not annoying at all! I love etymology and semantics. Not to be confused with entymology, god knows.

I would argue that "champing" is an archaic word use that "chomping" replaces in a way which makes sense. But raring and rearing - while a pronunciation issue only, would appear to be two different words. In other words, people who say "raring to go" may not realize they are unwittingly just saying "rearing" with a remnant Wild West, down home accent. Yee haw.

Re the Christians and the lions: I find that so disappointing. I mean, nothing against the Christians but man, that's an oldie but a goody.

That's another one I love: Goodman or Goodwife so-and-so became Goodie so-and-so. Who knew that? Who cares? I do! For no good reason. Perhaps I need help.

E.C. Henry said...

Great thought provoking post, Julie. Sorry to hear about all the flux in the entertainment industry. Having recently watched "Happy Gilmore," I'm still trying to hook-up with the guy who is filling out all those "big checks" with big numbers. Hope springs eternal in Bonney Lake, WA. AND it only takes one...

I'm gunna feed the hampster an extra peanut so I process all these ramifications.

- E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

Third World Girl said...

Hey Julie,
There's an interesting article in this month's Script magazine about this...the decline of the independent movie and art-house theaters due to studio and hedge fund over-investment. So yeah, the market's contracting, regulating itself I suppose.

That said, there will always be space for that great script, that "Juno" break-out hit. I think that's what keeps us writing. It's seductive to hold on to the spin that all it takes is one well-executed marketable idea (and yours could be next!!!), when the reality is that the odds of success in this business are pretty remote.

Julie Gray said...

thank you for your comment, 3rd World Girl! As a script consultant, I walk the fine line between encouraging clients to hold onto their dreams and improve their writing but yet not exploiting that dream by giving the idea that this is an easy industry to break into. The fact is, it's never been easy and it is in flux right now. But the other fact is that audiences do like their movies. They always have and they always will. In one form or another. So there's hope.

James said...

"And it'll happen soon enough, the transition has already begun--people are just confusing it with the industry being in "trouble.""

Couldn't agree more with this statement.

Look at the numbers. A projected 9.6 billion this year? Anyone compare this year's summer movies to last years?

There isn't anywhere near the onslaught of Blockbuster films we had last year and Hollywood is putting up numbers this year within a fraction of a percent of last year?


Forgive me if I don't see things as doom and gloom. It's as strong as it ever has been.

Yes, the format is changing. As is content. Low-budget has gone to basically, micro budget.

But more specs are actually being purchased since the writer's strike. This year's TV pilots were some of the worst people have ever seen, which is opening up the playing field to newer and more provocative ideas and writers.

Money is still being made hand over fist. As long as there is money being made, there will be an outlet for writers.

Anonymous said...

Dear Julie

I am a feeling your latest post is directed to me. Unless, you have more than one delusional client.

Don't worry about me. I'm a grown-up. At school, a teacher once told me I would amount to nothing and would be a "no-hoper" when I was older. Maybe even in jail. Some people still might say it. lol.

But at 35 years of age, I had a black Amex, $250k BMW, Merc for the wife, 3 kids in private school and a home on 1 acre with tennis court, swimming pool and all the mod-cons plus investment properties. And I was a terrible student at a crappy school.

I think I might have got the last laugh though.

So yes, I might be delusional but I am not going to die wondering.

It's like the time I met my wife for the first time. It was at a nightclub. There she was talking to her girlfriends. Such a gorgeous and beautiful woman. I'm no Brad Pitt. I had to work hard for the ladies. But the bottom line is: I could not go through life wondering. That would kill me. I had to get a yes or no. So I did approach her. She has been my wife for 15 years and we have 3 beautiful children.

Yes there were guys in there with bigger muscles, heaps better looking compared to me. But I am the one who actually had the guts to ask the question.

If I didn't take that chance we wouldn't be married today. My fate would be different.

I say, if you can handle rejection, apply to be President of the United States or whatever your dreams are. Just don't die wondering and don't stop having dreams.

If you can't handle rejection but still like to be part of a community that keeps your nights occupied I say good for you.

I think the hardest position to be in, is to be a person who can actually write and has talent. Now that's tough. You are looking for a career and usually need to start in crappy jobs drooling at your peers in the good gigs.

I have no false expectations and I certainly didn't get the vibe from the script department that I did. So don't worry about that. You are not responsible.

I have no expectations but to at least try and not die wondering.

PS Can you edit the grammar if you are going to post

Julie Gray said...

Dear AC - two things, one, I cannot edit comments, I can either post or not post them. Sorry 'bout that. My post was not directed at you at all. I have had delusional clients in the past but you are not one of them. In fact, I think you're going about getting your project of the ground in a very smart way. I have hundreds of clients and the delusional ones tend not to return because they don't like hearing the truth about their projects.

meg said...

Another interesting topic. I've always been fascinated by what motivates people especially creative types and athletes. Is the motivation different for someone who makes it to the top? Does the WFWH person have the same motivation but lack the skill to accurately access their odds of succeeding?

Are WFWH people writing from their souls and their chosen mode of approval is the entertainment business? Or are these folks only using writing as a way to get to fame and fortune?

Is being motivated by fame and fortune a bad thing? If you're good, really good, and that motivation propells you to succeed then what does it matter what got you to work hard? Some folks are motivated by external forces and others keep going only on their own internal sense of potential. Now I have my preference as to which type of person I want to hang out with but that doesn't really matter.

That the movie business is changing shouldn't matter. It's always changing in some way. It matters only to those hoping to "sneak" in on lesser abilities. But they probably don't care either since they lack the ability to accurately access their correct career path.

It's fascinating --what keeps people going. It's fun to read articles about people who kept going even though they had a ton of rejections. It gives us hope doesn't it?

Julie Gray said...

In my experience, regardless of motivation, there seems to be an inverse relationship between the level of talent and the level of WFWH'edness of a writer.

That said, talent or not, the thing that holds back WFWH'ers, regardless of motivation, is not being able to separate themselves from the realistic potential of the material on the market. Being determined and motivated is great, but one also needs to separate one's ego from the material on some level and take things in stride.

I mean, we just saw Fitzcarraldo; being a determined dreamer is something I admire very much. But sometimes you have to say okay, nobody seems to "get" this project, but I am undeterred because I have another project. And another.

Nobody knows anything in Hollywood, that's for sure. But I should think that if a number of experienced professionals tell you again and again that your project is either a tough sell conceptually or (and usually it's both) your execution OF said concept is not competitive, that you'd pay some attention to that and take an honest inventory of your ego-attachment.

Christian M. Howell said...

Nice article. I agree that there is a fundamental issue right now in cinema. I think it's mainly that too many of the some movies keep getting produced - how many slacker vehicles can audiences stand?

I for one think of screenwriting as - admittedly this just came to me - similar to a scene in the Sandra Bullock film 28 Days.

She's in the woods and comes upon Vito Morgenson practicing pitching.

He tries to explain to her the fundamentals of pitching.

"What were you thinking about when you threw the ball?"

"Hitting that little area."

"That's wrong. You just psyched yourself out. You start concentrating on that little spot it'll start to look like a raisin. But what I can do is concentrate on the things I can control. Like my stance, my follow through."

That's how I write. I remember that most people have a maximum of ten minutes in a movie that was memorable. That's because short little sections add up to entertainment. Actors are attracted to moments where they can shine, but nowadays movies are about farcical invention rather than the recognizable banalities of life.

Audiences seem to be moving from the "Golden Boy" mentality to the reality of life in a melting pot. This is evidenced by the rise of box office on films like Juno (that was a theatrical release?) and Sex and the City and even Enchanted and Mamma Mia.

The definition of four quadrant also seems to be bending as I believe a comparison of HellBoy II and Hancock would show. The clarity of images in Hancock was more well-received than the filters of Del Toro's world even though it was a sequel to a popular comic and Hancock was a drunk.

Even Resident Evil Extinction showed that daytime can be scary or suspenseful (Birds, anyone?).

All fo these changes are making execs nervous which may account for the massive number of remakes lately. In my mind it's also because there really aren't any new stories anymore. But that's a good thing. It makes elements key rather than clever plot twists.

I mean with all of the marketing nowadays you very nearly know the movie before it even comes out.

Also technology is totally redefining how movies are made and how much it really costs to fully market them. It costs a lot less to put up a website with links in social networking sites than to cove just the subways of NYC with one sheets.

When I went to see the three highest grossing movies this year (Hancock, Iron Man and The Dark Knight - actually Indy took Hancock: I love IMDB Pro) I paid close attention to the peaks and valleys of the movies and they were all predictable and similar in nature and scope(according to the ooos and aahhs, etc.).

Screenwriters need to really take visual control of their scripts ad use more props and character contrasts (Hancock's glasses vs clothes; Bruce's smile vs. Batman's scowl; Pepper Potts' stern seriousness vs. the naive amazement of the "conquest" she boots out; the differences in Harvey when he's alone with Rachel; and especially the lack of a back story for the Joker, but his obvious affinity for knives - which had to have made his "smile").

What I strive to do is make as many good 20-50 frame sequences as I can. If I can find a notable image(full-frame) or noticeable line I'm happy.

I guess I just really want to entertain myself and I am the most hard-to-please cinemaphile ever. I love cliche but hate vapid representation; I hate sex but love strong sensuality; I hate character arcs but love progressive change.

I may never sell a screen play but I'm confident because I have about an 85% prediction for box office order and numbers for this year - OK for the last several years I have been paying attention.

I just love to write pictures and just that is exciting enough, but actually getting to talk about them is truly bliss. The most fun I ever had was the Fade In pitch fest last year. I got a bite or two on my first script - shhhh, don't tell anyone - and have a good source of contacts for other projects.

I'd also like to thank you for saying the word SEMIOTICS. My research on it has led me to some of the most profound philosophical examinations of cinema.

I was interested in what USC or Tisch use as I didn't go to either. I would suggest that every screenwriter learn about the Time Image. It opened my mind to even more possibilities.

Anyway, this pesky comedy I'm almost finished awaits. Maybe if I could stop starting new scripts every few days....

Anonymous said...

Sorry for being a grammar Nazi, but you are misinformed about "raring." It is most definitely a word, although you're correct about its original dialectical derivation. If you doubt me, please consult a fairly decent dictionary such as Webster's Third International. (And yes, raring is a "real" word; I realize that "ain't" is also in some dictionaries but I'm not using that sort of specious argument).