Tag Archives: Film Industry

Questions of Quality and Quantity in Prestige TV

So now that summer is over, including that show with the dragons, you may be wondering, “What shows are actually coming back this year?”

Jen Trolio and Caroline Framke over at Vox have answers.

This is one of those perennial Vox pieces I’m glad they do every year, because there’s a lot of shows. In fact, some might say there’s a glut of shows out there, which has led to occasional questions of whether we’re at “peak TV.”

Incidentally, I previously linked to a piece discussing what “peak TV” might mean anyway, but I find the way Variety tracks it is works for me: the number of scripted series. The concern, then, is not necessarily that we would exhaust the supply of talented storytellers making the various series, but that the series become so numerous that too many of them fail to find an audience and economic security (i.e., continued survival).

Todd VanDerWerff explores this more in-depth (also in Vox), including both the cyclical nature of notions of TV being horrible and then wonderful as well as the ways in which the quantity of media coverage on a particular TV show does not necessarily track to its quality.

This Summer Means Hollywood is Doomed…. Again

Every summer –for at least a decade or more– the Hollywood film industry has been doomed.

I would imagine they must get sick of all the doom, what with being doomed with the advent of television, the disintegration of the studio system, the rise of VCRs and video stores, online streaming, streaming services like Netflix making their own content — and possibly avocado toast.

Nevertheless, within the traditional ‘doom’ narrative, there may be trends, so I read a recent piece by David Sims in The Atlantic with interest about Hollywood’s “bad movie problem.” Just like last year, there seem to be a slew of high-profile blockbusters that underperformed domestically. This year, however, Sims hypothesizes that executives are running out of gas with their strategy of mining known IP for all its worth regardless of demand. He bases this not a generic “doom” observation, but that the studios are using tactics internationally, specifically the Chinese market, that are netting less overall profit. Oh, and the films are still doing bad domestically (ahem: bad movies).

Indeed, over in the Hollywood Reporter, Scott Roxborough and Patrick Brzeski detail the wave of political slings and arrows that may sour all the Chinese-American film synergy. Moreover, several of the media monoliths now owned by Chinese concerns are experience firsthand on their balance sheets what it means for North American box office revenues to slide. In fact, John Nolte over at The Daily Wire suggests that, yes, it really is a bad movie problem. The American viewing public has figured this out and both box office and home video revenues are slumping accordingly.

So is this the Final Doom?

I mean, Spielberg released the BFG, so maybe…

It strikes me that movies and related “more passive” visual entertainment are still a potent pop culture delivery device. They’ll be around for quite some time until companies figure out how to make virtual reality more economical and interwoven with our habits like turning on the TV in the evening or going to films on weekends. If or when that happens, expertise in films and such will likely pour into those interactive productions. The companies that exist today could definitely transform into interactive powerhouses through building up their own capabilities or through acquisitions.

Though, frankly, I love films and TV as-is and hope there’s always going to be a place for them (same with books as my bulging bookshelves can attest). And I hope some of the studios pick up on what Sims pointed out in his article: that some of the best grossing films so far this year have been non-franchise original works… that not coincidentally didn’t cost as much to produce.

Tune in for a similar article next summer!

Conflict in a Cannes

Netflix, via its movie premieres at the celebrated Cannes Film Festival, has gotten a resounding, “Non!” (no) from the famously film-loving French. Well, at the very least there were boos.

Jordan Zakarin has a piece in Inverse from last Friday about how this really reflects on Hollywood more than Netflix. Essentially, Netflix is making a bet on films Hollywood no longer wants to (because they’re so enamored of franchises and tentpole films). Alissa Wilkinson has a piece in Vox from yesterday that explains the controversy in terms of competing film cultures… which also goes into how Netflix is filling a vacuum left by Hollywood.

I’ll be interested to see how this plays out, but as I noted back in February, when Netflix greenlit Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, I’m pleased to see the how they’re trying to make ducats and lots of content by letting known talents make films the studios no longer deem bankable.

The Continually Evolving Appetites of Worldwide Filmgoers

Following the film industry is something I do frequently enough to merit a tag.

One article in Wired, by K. M. McFarland, that particularly caught my notice last July noted how the expensive fantasy epic Warcraft did miserably in the United States, yet comfortably in the rest of the world.

So now we have an article by Todd VanDerWerff in Vox that also explores that divide between the U.S. and global box office. Look at those lists of top grossing films: how many of you are wondering who the demons are, and why do they want to strike back?

I’m probably not alone among American film lovers used to having a general idea of the top grossing films of the year, but that’s because up until recently, it’s because reports on the top-grossing films in North America and worldwide are very close. It’s kind of like late last year, when I discovered there are 14 Land Before Time films. Certainly, kids like dinosaurs. Certainly, I’m not the target demographic for those films, but 13 sequels and a TV show have been made?!?

And, as I implied in last year’s post, my ongoing interest isn’t simply personal, but what this means for how film projects are approved and financed. We’ve been long accustomed to films and TV shows seeking the largest possible audiences — it’s just that now North American audiences have been shown to not be the ever-indispensable part of that coalition (though it’s still significant more often than not).

The interesting thing is that the Hollywood studios appear all the more aware of their global audiences — and they have the funding and inclination to accommodate different global niches. So there are slightly tweaked versions of Disney’s latest animated fare, additional or expanded scenes for Chinese audiences in the latest action blockbusters, and more.

Netflix seems to be very savvy about this, aided by the prodigious amount of data they’ve collected on the viewing habits of their subscribers. One of their latest series premieres, Ultimate Beastmaster, is their global answer to American Ninja Warrior (itself, a version of the Japanese show, Sasuke). It’s structured and shot in such a way so that it’s basically six regional versions: American (English-speaking), Brazilian (Portuguese-speaking), Mexican (Spanish-speaking), Japanese, Korean, and German.

(I’m sure the French, irked by the snub at not deemed worthy of becoming Beastmasters, will shortly launch counter programming in the form of The Next French Legionnaire.)

These local/expert versions make me think of the Hollywood practice during the early “talkie” era when they would shoot several versions of the film in different languages (dubbing and subtitling eventually replaced this). While I don’t think Ultimate Beastmaster means we’re going to go back to the future in all productions, I do notice a wide assortment of subtitles on many of Netflix’s offerings — and many of them clearly originate from elsewhere or have a non-American audience as their primary audience.

I’m sure that means that, before the year is out, I’ll be faced with another wildly successful show or film that I’ve never heard of, but appeals to the tastes of global filmgoers. In fact, even now, I’m sure the cinematic equivalent of Coke III is being greenlit.

RIP, Robert Osbourne

Growing up in the DC area, my dad made full use of all the free film series places like the National Archives, Library of Congress, and East Gallery would provide. And, of course, he’d take us along. It was at these places that I first saw such classics as To Kill a Mockingbird, Fort Apache, and Gone with the Wind.

“It was TCM before TCM,” I explained.

Earlier this week, the man who epitomized Turner Classic Movies (TCM), Robert Osbourne, passed away at the age of 84.

Online, I commented that it’s hard to think of him as 80-something. The energy and enthusiasm he brought to his film intros leapt off the TV screen. The joy he exuded while sharing cinema minutiae made you feel you were in for something special — even when he cautioned you that the something special was not the best of films.

Another film historian, Leonard Maltin, has a great remembrance of him. And writer and pop culture historian, Mark Evanier, has a nice anecdote too.

I like what Maltin said that Robert Osbourne was “on a mission.” He will be missed, but I daresay he succeeded in his mission.

Recommended Reading: Netflix and Martin Scorsese’s Next Film

David Sims has a longer piece in The Atlantic about how Martin Scorsese’s next film, which sounds very much in the tradition of his gangster epics Casino and Goodfellas, will be coming from… Netflix?

I’ve read several pieces about this news over the past few days and all of them mark how this seems to herald a change — but this piece goes a bit more in-depth in terms of what this might mean or not mean for the entertainment industry.

This isn’t “tech industry disrupts existing industry” in the archetypical narrative we’ve come to know. Amazon isn’t implicated in the shuttering studios like it is for ending brick-and-mortar bookstores. Netflix isn’t supplanting taxis like Lyft and Uber.

In short, Amazon and Netflix aren’t changing how movies are being made. They’re still hiring the same cast and crews a Hollywood studio might have. They’re not making movies more cheaply.  In fact, if anything, Netflix appears to be overpaying for many of its movies and TV series in an effort to establish a lot of content. Basically, Amazon and Netflix are some of the new financiers.

However, if you look at the Hollywood studios, they are mainly the same as they have been for decades. Even the movie theaters, which are surely hurting and facing new pressures on all sides, remain a huge source of distribution income for studio films. So this move of Netflix to fill the gap of a project that might previously be deemed quite “bankable” by the studios (and movie theaters) did catch my eye. What will this mean for the future?

2016’s Summer Blockbuster Wasteland

Now that Labor Day has past, we’re officially out of Summer, those who are wont to assess how the film industry did during its summer blockbuster season don’t need to wait to write what many were already musing about in early August: this year has been terrible.

Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff details this in the site’s Winners/Losers style in a method that’s very focused on the facts of what did well and what didn’t (many articles analyzing Hollywood’s fortunes at the box office tend to have some prescriptive scolding sneak in). I take solace in the fact that lower budgeted features have proven to have some great returns-on-investment. For filmmakers making films designed to be acquired (versus commissioned by the studios), this is hopeful news.

On the other hand is Peter Suderman’s assessment of Hollywoods’s woes, also in Vox. Suderman is a bit more scolding as he feels Hollywood is being lazy and formulaic (a common gripe). However, he does go further with the premise that, with the ballooning of “blockbuster” budgets from $100 million into the $200-$300 million realm, studios are, by necessity, so risk averse that their cinematic concoctions lack the idiosyncratic vitality that made their legendary predecessors shine. The idea is that by trying to please everyone on the planet, these decidedly average films –despite star power and impressive production values– lack some must-see quality that prevents them from being anything other than blockbusters-in-waiting.

Of course, he hedges on his premise noting that several of these films such as the latest installments of Captain America and Star Trek did a good job critically. That makes the abysmal box office all the more maddening. Equally maddening, at least to me, is the continued hollowing out of the mid-range film (as I talked about back in July).

The one bright spot seems to be –and this is not an original observation– is that the creative energy and financial backing that used to be going into the mid-range films is now going into TV shows. That may well be true — and in the Suderman article above, he mentions that TV shows seems to be haven for idiosyncratic –and successful– innovation these days. Stranger Things is cited as an example of summer success.

I still think there’d be a place to have a subsidiary studio or “imprint” that tried to make films in the $10 – 30 million range. You’re trying to have all those films earn $80 to $200 million at the box office. It’s not the same as the $500 to $700 million (to fanciful notions of over $1 billion) that they want the $180 – $250 million blockbusters, but the goal would be to have an overall better ROI.

In addition to the ROI, the “mid-range” budgeted movie provides something else to the studio ecosystem: a project that is neither as expensive and high-stakes as their current beloved blockbuster model, nor as protracted time-wise as a season of TV.

Maybe this is immaterial and studios feel that TV series offer more return on investment or more of a chance at franchises and longevity (what they now obsess with given the blockbuster model). This “mid-range” films also don’t currently appear to have a place in the ever-lengthening “summer blockbuster season.” However, underlying the love of franchises and IP that can be mined for Internet centuries is an overall aversion to risk. Why else would we be seeing movie versions of Battleship (and presumably, one day, Risk)?

There’s a saying that making a movie is a marathon, but making a TV show is running until you drop dead. Lower budgeted movies give you a chance to test writers, directors, cast, and crew in something where the stakes aren’t do-or-die like a blockbuster and isn’t at a pace like a TV show. My premise is that this is a valuable place in a studio’s ecosystem: a place where one might cultivate the cast and crew graduating from the indie darlings and on to the blockbusters and TV shows of the future. They also might provide counter-programming to all the blockbusters.

I will be interested to see how the rest of the year shakes out box office wise. In terms of production slates, I imagine the release schedule for Summer 2017 is already written by and large, but I wouldn’t be surprise if even now, some adjustments are in the works.

Update, 2016-09-09: Todd VanDerWerff follows up in Vox about some of the films that have done well this summer — mainly some of the smaller ones.

The article delves into how there are multiple audiences for films, and posits that studios may well succeed by targeting other audiences than just the purported blockbuster audience.

I tend to agree — and it seems like there’s always some counter-programming during the ever lengthening summer blockbuster season, but unfortunately it seems that it’s not a concerted effort much of the time. Perhaps they think of calculated counter-programming like Cinderella Man, a perfectly enjoyable period drama by Ron Howard & co. that underperformed at the box office. I wonder if this wouldn’t be where the $10 – 30 million budget studio films might do well (Cinderella Man came in at a weight of $88 million). The other part of counter-programming would be making even otherwise normal films part of an event, as Fathom has done (them and how movie theaters might re-invent themselves as 21st century movie palaces would be something for another post).


World of Filmcraft -er- Film Distribution

An article by K. M. McFarland in Wired about Warcraft the other week got me thinking about how the global marketplace for films has been changing.

Simply put, Warcraft has done dismally in the U.S. box office. Just $46 million as of last Friday. Against its $160 million production budget, that’s awful — all the more so when you realize that $160 million doesn’t account for “prints and advertising,” an ever-growing expense that can often equal the production budget.

But guess what? The U.S. box office accounts for a little less than 11% of Warcraft’s take. It’s made over $422 million worldwide so far, so its sequel is probably there if the studio wants it.

We’ve known for some time that Hollywood has been looking overseas to make a good chunk of its money. I think I first realized this focus with the 2004 film Troy. Its performance in the U.S. was unremarkable, even disappointing. It didn’t make its production budget of $175 million. But combined with its international haul, it made nearly $500 million theatrically.

We’ve known too that Hollywood, in its quest to finance ever-growing blockbuster budgets, has been getting funds from overseas. We can rattle off a host of tentpole films with scenes in China from The Dark Knight onward. And as of this year, tentpole financier Legendary Entertainment is a subsidiary of a Chinese conglomerate. While Hollywood is an undeniable center of gravity in the film world, it now launches its projects with an eye to escape the orbit of the United States.

With Warcraft, we’re now seeing how some of these films might not only have interest in the global market, but how these films might be of interest in the global market excluding the United States. As a cultural/entertainment hegemon, this is a rather shocking development. As someone who grew up with the films of John Ford and Akira Kurosawa (aka films from outside of current time and space), I don’t find this necessarily bad… but I’d be lying if I didn’t say I sometimes enjoy being part of the cultural/entertainment hegemony.

Hegemonic feelings aside, I am somewhat concerned though that this trend will exacerbate the overall trend towards eliminating “mid-budget films.” Nowadays, I suppose that means films in the $40 million to $70 million range. Spielberg’s Lincoln would fit this model ($65 million), as would his more recent Bridge of Spies ($40 million). But besides ‘Oscar contender’ films, a whole host of solid, grown-up films used to be released with regularity by the studios. I suppose much of that content and its budgets have been transposed to TV, but I’m sure some potential film projects have been lost in the process.

And that’s a shame. Because there’s a place for those mid range movies among the dirt-cheap indies and the blockbuster features. And there’s a place for the people who make them. It reminds me of publishers and the “mid range authors,” a variety of writer that seems to have been on the way out for over a decade (you can read more about the decrease of mid-list authors both here and here).

I guess we’ll see. We’re also experiencing a huge uptick in scripted series, so it could be film projects haven’t really been lost so much as transformed into mini-series. In any case, I’ll be interested to see what Warcraft’s final numbers are, if there will be a sequel, and if this means there will be a whole new crop of Hollywood franchises that aren’t looking to make it big in the U.S. if they can make it big elsewhere.

More on Peak TV and how TV Production is Changing

So, one of the things I obsess about, when my synapses are not otherwise engaged is what the future of TV looks like and how TV programs are being made.

So I was very interested in a pair of articles I read this past January about the idea of “Peak TV” as well as one earlier this month about the potential production pipeline problem HBO may have with new shows.

And of course, I enjoyed the nuts and bolts article about making The Americans.

So it was great to read this cover story in Vulture by Josef Adalian and Maria Elena Fernandez about how “Peak TV” is putting a strain on the whole tv/film industry apparatus and causing all sorts of shifts in how TV gets made.

Here are some interesting tidbits from the article (many of which I’ve read in some form elsewhere albeit separately):

  • “Peak TV” isn’t a fanciful phrase. Scripted shows doubled from 2009 to 2015 from about 200 per year to 409 per year.
  • Leading actors for shows are commanding great per episode rates, but this has led perennial guest star/character actors making peanuts compared to what they used to. (Sort of income inequality in microcosm)
  • More writers have more chances to tell their stories
  • Showrunners and shows themselves don’t earn as much on the back end as they used to
  • All the upsurge in production means experienced crews are worth their weight in platinum

All very interesting. It probably makes you wonder what the future holds. Will major disruptions to the current trends in TV production mean a loss of quality? Will reality TV make a counterattack? Will multi-camera sitcoms? The Left Shark?

For indie filmmakers, a big question is when, where, and how these trends or changes in the trends might amount to more opportunities. As the article notes, the 90s/early naughts were great for indie features, but now, free capital is flowing to TV series on the multitude of new channels and platforms.

Indie filmmakers, including those here in the DC area have appeared to take note. In that past decade, indie filmmakers have realized “web series” could be the road to more traditional series and many have worked to try and find out a path to make that possible. In the end, the bottom line is how the filmmaking, the storytelling can be a career.

For those of you outside the DC-Baltimore area, you may not know we have scores of professional theaters, thousands of actors, and plenty of film and video production. That said, and despite shows like House of Cards, Veep, and Turn being shot in the area, we’re not mentioned in the same sentence as Atlanta or Vancouver or Toronto.

For all the rising costs, those cities and their requisite local industries appear to offer value to producers trying to make the latest engaging TV shows. Can DC offer that value filmmaking in the decade ahead? I know many fellow filmmakers would like that to be the case.

As the Dust Settles on a TV Season

I tweeted out Vox’s rundown of shows that were renewed, canceled, or ended via the Team J twitter a couple weeks ago, though it’s since been updated further.

Last Tuesday, they not only updated that list, but Todd VanDerWerff did a great rundown of the various reasons a show might get canceled. Within that explanation comes a great overview about how TV shows make money.

For those of us looking to understand the economics of making television, especially as we wander into the future of more streaming, it’s a great read.