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Hollywood Might Be in a Cyclical Change. Or Not.
Are we at a crossroads, or just on pause with the same-old?
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KILLED BY CHINESE WHISPERS
Maybe four months ago, I was on a call with an old friend, a former UTA agent, when we hit a common snag in the dialogue between filmmakers and industry execs of the kind we’re in the midst of right now with the WGA/SAG-AFTRA strikes.
“Hollywood is changing,” I said, in defense of having published an exposé about how Call Me By Your Name was likely based on my teen romance in Italy in the 70s with Gore Vidal’s godson, like Armie Hammer’s character also named Oliver. Without having read the piece, my friend was dismayed at how rash it was of me to react “emotionally.”
“Hollywood never changes,” she replied.
She assumed, as most colleagues and professional friends do, that it’s a grievance piece, a written cult-of-victimhood tantrum of the kind that has formed a yearslong cyclone around American and Anglosphere culture; it seems to be abating, or maybe it’s just summer. Having thrown 70-thousand-plus words at Wokeism since this newsletter launched in February, wishful thinking might be clouding my judgment.
My therapist, Dr. Borkheim, agrees that it seems to be slipping away. Surely Kevin Spacey’s acquittal was the final curtain of many final curtains on MeToo, which Tina Brown labeled “fraught” right from its onset.
The truth is that the exposé is the opposite of a grievance, at least in terms of my intentions as the author. My outlook is practical and appreciative of how André Aciman and Luca Guadagnino honored my story, which in itself causes a cognitive distortion in the majority of readers that points to just how deeply threat-elevation demonizations like “appropriation” have implanted themselves in Liberal culture. I also published it four and a half years after the film’s release, all but ensuring that it wouldn’t be newsworthy and damage its considerable positive impact on millions of people around the world.
None of that matters. Anyone who has survived the filmed-content industry as long as Louise and I have knows that just being perceived as having an impulsive emotional response to a major studio asset like CMBYN will get you labeled as reckless, temperamental, and therefore “difficult.” It’s a Quixotic career-killer of the kind that will ensure your industry network will withdraw the warm hugs for fear of contagion.
I considered all of that while writing the exposé over the course of a year. An unexpected boon was how transformative the process was in terms of my evolution as a scribbler: it coalesced my non-script prose into what it needs to be to pull off the memoir, the eventual source material for a series in development. According to a strict dictum of the scripting process, no two pieces of filmed content can be so similar; either I needed to reclaim my story somehow or be forced to fictionalize it. My long-suffering, much-loved consiglieri agreed that the exposé was the best course.
Just as I took that rule for granted, I knew that I would be exiled from the business either temporarily or forever. Rather than wait for the axe to drop, I decided I would go quietly on my own terms. For the foreseeable future, I’m focused mainly on the memoir, this newsletter, and my parallel career as a visual designer and creative director.
I wasn’t being paranoid. A producer mentioned throughout the exposé who isn’t Jack Lechner turned his back to me outside Sprouts Market in West Hollywood a few weeks after publication. It felt like being cut in The Gilded Age with the same ramifications: Mrs. Astor would not be home to receive me in the near future, perhaps forever.
“You embarrassed him in front of his colleagues,” Dr. Borkheim said.
I’m a terrible person.
The caption to a photo in The New York Times four days ago about how Spacey's acquittal might reinstate him in Hollywood said, “Comebacks have always been hard in Hollywood, which may be politically liberal but is artistically and financially conservative.”
That’s not completely true: they haven’t “always been hard in Hollywood.” To quote what the back-turning producer said to a director attached to a project we were developing in 2016, who’d been canceled at fifty for almost bankrupting a studio with a literally epic flop, “Don’t worry: Hollywood loves a comeback.” There was still one year to go on the director’s second stint in “director’s jail,” usually a seven-year sentence of being blackballed by the studios.
A year is nothing in development. The average development for a project that finally makes it into production is nine years. Only one in ten projects that are developed — as in money put into the option, script, budgeting, T&E, readings and so forth — go into production.
A few months later, the producer called me and said, “I can’t have him attached. They say he’s difficult and a screamer.”
“I’ve been working with him for almost twenty years. That’s not my experience; only people who’ve never worked with him say that.”
“I don’t care. Nobody will touch the project if he’s attached.”
At that moment, I wished the director really had crashed the studio. “Oh, fuck Hollywood.”
“Never fuck Hollywood.”
“Okay, then call him and tell him, I guess.”
“You call him.”
It was one of the most difficult calls I’ve ever had to make. My face bunched together in a mighty cringe when the director reminded me that he was the only one in the conversation with two box office hits that grossed over $100 million on $5 million budgets. He didn’t need to add that he’s considered a groundbreaking genius whose work is collected by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He was the highest-paid director in the world for the third year in a row when we started working together.
He didn’t scream then, just as he hadn’t over almost twenty years, despite the fact the project was his idea to being with. He’d been canceled by execs poisoned by Chinese whispers that demonized him and elevated the reason for his cancelation to something more than the more basic truth: He’d directed a flop that nearly capsized a mini-major.
“I love you, man,” he said. “I’ve had my bliss. I want you to have yours.”
Robert Downey, Jr. slid in there with a classic Hollywood-loves-a-comeback in 2008 just moments before the impenetrable gate of unforgiveness and critical-theory-based morality slammed into place, almost crushing him. At one point he was uninsurable for indie films — only self-insured studios could cast him. He needed a minder on set and had to piss in a cup a few times a day. Would that have happened post-2013?
The incident with the canceled director was one of too many moments when the American film industry’s high-horse moralizing, double standards, braggadocio, machismo, fearmongering, facile mendacity and cowardice embarrassed me almost on a par with my respect, awe and pride for its unparalleled influence and quality of production and content. Better yet, some of the most brilliant, wittiest people on the planet work in entertainment.
I’ve worked in corporate America, in marketing and communications for Citibank in New York, so still creative, not real banking. While it taught me valuable skills and an appreciation of the corporate side of Hollywood that most creatives don’t have — a two-time Oscar-nominated producer told me, “You could run a studio” — I would rather wrestle with the rats and the rent in filmed content than ever go back to that.
Such are the times of terror we live in. Hollywood has brought this inverted form of McCarthyism on itself, except it’s much worse than the Red Scare in the 50s, which drove my Oliver’s grandfather, Donald Ogden Stewart (the highest-paid screenwriter in Hollywood one day, unemployable the next), into permanent exile in London. This time it’s the noxious caprices of Marxist-feminist dialectic that has the industry by the throat, balls, and mind.
Speaking from the self-imposed sidelines with an unobstructed view of the dynamics framed by firsthand experience, Hollywood is in the middle of what might be a considerable, industry-changing upheaval brought on by three interrelated factors: normal corporate risk-aversion, boosted by the neo-Puritanical social-justice movement to abnormal levels of conservatism; a tepid box office already hampered by the pandemic, but still stagnating due to warmed-over secondhand content, what the wits have nicknamed “visual Muzak”; and the WGA/SAG-AFTRA fear-of-AI-and-a-bunch-of-Byzantine-industry-issues strikes.
If I conjure an associative image of what’s going on right now, I see myself sitting on the concrete rim of the Hollywood reservoir watching these three forces coalesce into a raging whirlpool that’s sucking the industry into it. Now and then I flick unpopped kernels from an XL bucket of buttered popcorn into the churn.
What will it spit out?
“You want to do the economics of Hollywood? Say what you want, but they're one of the few American industries still making a product people want to buy. … Entertainment is one of our highest revenue-generating exports and they employ members of 17 different unions, all of which have excellent minimum basic contracts.”
— Sloan Sabbith, ‘The Newsroom’
WHEN SAYING “NO” IS BAD FOR BUSINESS
Throughout high school I wanted to be an actor. When that proved to be too daunting, I considered becoming a theater director. Then, one afternoon midway through the first semester of my freshman year at Wesleyan, as I was coming out of a cinema studies screening of Hiroshima, Mon Amour with a Garboesque Franco-Danish princess — we’d gravitated toward each other quickly amidst the swarm of Americans from places I’d never heard of but nonetheless terrified me — I had a Road-to-Damascus moment.
Drizzle had blackened and glossed the pathways of the Center for the Arts, soggy autumn leaves speckling the asphalt like inverted leopard spots. The princess held my arm fast for safety and bowed her head. “Pas un mot,” she rasped, as she always did after a film — I was allowed “not a word” until she’d processed what she’d just seen.
The silence that followed on that miserable afternoon in a decaying season echoed the abstracted, inexpressible sadness, love and hopelessness of what we’d seen on the screen. The film stalked and shrouded us in such a way that we became the characters, Elle and Lui, her and him. That power of unreality melding and overwhelming reality — however fleetingly, yet lasting as a sense memory that is as fresh now as it was forty years ago — impressed every molecule of my teenage mind.
When we were halfway across campus, firmly back in Middletown, no longer in Nevers, the sensitive orphaned princess exhaled the last of the film’s ghost with a discreet shudder and loosened her grip on my arm.
“Tu peux parler maintenant,” she said, giving me permission to speak again.
“Je vais être cinéaste.” I was going to be a filmmaker.
For better or worse, blessed or damned, I now had a vocation. Most Americans respond to the sacrifices I’ve made for my calling with, “You’re living your dream.” I resist replying that, as often as not, it’s a nightmare; there are no safe spaces, no safety nets at all in a creative vocation, even if you hit the big time when you’re young.
I discourage everyone who tells me they want to pursue a creative profession; those who don’t truly have a vocation will listen; those who legitimately have one will only be more determined to pursue it to prove me wrong — I’ve never had that happen.
In the weeks following the moment the producer turned his back on me, something I didn’t know I needed occurred: my last significant attachment other than to life itself fell away. Romance, marriage, wealth, prestige, respect, my Oscar speech and all the other assumptions that I’d formed about my future when I was younger had already packed their bags and moved out of my mind years ago, largely due to my time in Eastern esoteric practice, psychotherapy and the lotuses of wisdom that flower in middle age.
Only one remained, the most stubborn: filmmaking, a forty-year obsession that I’ve pursued with dogged tenacity, as one must or not do it at all.
Don’t get me wrong: my vocation is as solid as ever; I’m simply no longer attached to it. I can take it or leave it. I accept the outcome whatever it be — it’s been more liberating than I ever knew, like being deprogrammed after decades in an abusive cult.
With social narratives and groupthink that I have significant distance from, which is to say most of them, I find that I’m able to construct a likely outcome for a particular situation or dynamic with a fair bit of accuracy; my judgment isn’t clouded by pessimism, fear, or hope. I ascribe this in large part to the fact that as a dramatist, I naturally process the characters, dynamics, circumstances and context through my experience. A hazy-yet-discernable image of the most likely plot path and conclusion presents itself; that is, barring a force majeure twist like Donald Trump, which will fuck my crystal ball as badly as anyone else’s.
When it comes to the film industry, however, I’ve never been as good at seeing a likely future, my view clouded with prejudicial wishful thinking like, “Dramas will dominate again one day… any day now… no, seriously, just you wait…”
Invariably, my mind skips to how everyone including me thought scripted TV was doomed at the turn of the century, felled by reality TV. It was a great excuse not to get into TV — wishful thinking and attachments to constructed chimeric futures make schmucks of us all.
All of which is to say that, detachment from my vocation or now, I’m not the best person to determine where Hollywood will land once this churning vortex of three interrelated factors — corporate conservatism; visual Muzak; the mother of all strikes — spits us out. Will it be a new version of Oz with a purple brick road or back in the same-old slog at the animal farm in Kansas?
Last Sunday I read a piece in The New Yorker by TV critic Inkoo Kang — an enviable name that conjures a writerly ninja warrior whose weapons are lethal fountain pens — that was a masterclass in waffling and circumspection. She sorta-kinda blames it on the execs, de rigueur for her Coca-Cola Marxism-infused publication:
“Since the streaming era, movies and television feel less special, labor conditions have plummeted, and turbulent mergers and layoffs call into question which legendary institutions will still stand in another ten or twenty years. …
“The disruption that Netflix and the streaming wars have unleashed on the entertainment industry in just the past decade has been so unpredictable that it seems foolish to predict only doom, although that’s certainly where the arrows are pointing.
“But even Hollywood’s boosters have to admit that, since the streaming era, movies and television feel less special, labor conditions (for writers, actors, and below-the-line crew members) have plummeted, and the industry’s turbulent mergers and layoffs call into question which legendary institutions will still stand in another ten or twenty years. I won’t purport to know how to fix Hollywood, but the answer doesn’t seem to lie in highlighting the industry’s creative torpor and timidity while driving away the people with the institutional knowledge to transform an idea into hours of spectacle, comfort, provocation, or maybe even art made by hundreds or thousands of people. Perhaps Hollywood isn’t willing to bet on its future, but it can at least stop from actively working against it.”
The emphasis is mine to highlight my point about the you’ll-never-eat-lunch-in-this-town-again canceling of talented individuals for claiming their rights; Spacey-ing them based on wobbly allegations that are later acquitted, or Hammer-ing them for being kinky — a really interesting fetish, no less, but still no more than roleplay — in consensual long-term relationships; not having the requisite prestige attachments to get projects set up; for perceived behavioral issues — directing is incredibly stressful, like captaining a warship in battle during an epic storm, and if the set slips up for whatever reason, yeah, there will be shouting to keep it running smoothly. It’s cutting off your nose to spite your face, to use one of my mother’s favorite sayings.
Inkoo brings up another issue about the dearth of talented senior management on the TV and streaming side that has been a thorn in my side:
W.G.A. members have expressed alarm not only that their profession has become devalued and unstable through low pay but also that the paths that allowed newcomers to eventually become showrunners, which have existed for the past half-century, have been eroded by the studios. … The dismantling of this ladder is all the more counterintuitive given that the scarcity of experienced showrunners during the content boom has been a known problem for years.
I’ve omitted a somewhat logically impaired passage in the middle of that paragraph about writers’ rooms and being present on the set to train up as showrunners.
In 2019, the mother of New Queer Cinema attached herself to the aforementioned project. Based on a true crime, it’s A Very English Scandal meets Chainsaw Massacre written by de Sade for Robert Mapplethorpe’s fever dream. In other words, a difficult project to set up, but still a true story and different enough to captivate a viewership tired of the same-old, while still being a familiar true crime limited series about gay men doing sick things à la Dahmer.
After a round of pitches with a studio where she had a first-look deal, Queer Mama-san kicked it back: We needed to attach a name showrunner. She might as well have said, “Get me Di Caprio or Clooney as the lead.”
Thus began a yearslong detour in a futile search for a veteran star showrunner like Ryan Murphy but not him — “he’s too camp.” It takes a minimum of eight to ten weeks for a showrunner at that level to read it and decide, and you can only go out to one at a time or risk the project becoming “shopworn,” another ludicrous reason to say “No” to a worthy project.
Every now and then in meetings with the Sprouts producer, I brought up the easiest solution: given that I was both the writer-creator and an executive producer by default, why not have me trail one of Queer Mama-san’s series, or someone else’s, and train me up to be the showrunner? There’s nothing about the filmmaking process that I don’t already have hands-on experience with, just on the feature side; the production differences with TV shows are minor and largely procedural.
Had my canceled director been the one to make decisions, he would’ve said, “That’s a great idea!” Having spent years in the trenches of production and having worked with me for a large portion of that time, he would have no doubt that I could pull it off.
In her New Yorker piece, Inkoo specifically mentions that showrunners must have necessary skills “such as editing, sound mixing, and color correction.” I have thirty years of experience doing all of that myself. It’s even easier as a showrunner: I would be supervising post-production, not fiddling with saturation or lowering the music levels in the sound mix myself.
The Sprouts producer dismissed it out of hand. My talent and competence as a producer with veteran-level experience in another sector of filmed content, not to mention an eternity spent slow roasting in development hell, couldn’t supersede a self-destructive imperative about needing someone with a track record.
Most of these conflicting restrictions and many others are holdovers from a time when there were six studios, four networks, and as many premium cable channels. There are now seventy-plus buyers, I believe.
Indie film financing has its own set of nearly insurmountable obstacles: pre-sales, name-cast attachments, private equity, institutional gap financing, tax rebates, and so forth. For the past 15 years or so, producers have also had to raise additional funds for prints and advertising, or P&A.
Once the film is in the can — following an unlikely set of miracles that often involve quasi-illegal maneuvering — it has to get into Sundance, a stodgy institution headed by the same head of programming/festival director for the past twenty years that for me has never deserved its waning hegemony over the American indie film sector. The festival has a <1% acceptance rate. Once in, the film then has to win a top award or your investors can kiss those millions goodbye — they probably will even with a sale — and you’ll never work in this town again.
Filmmakers must accomplish all of that to go on to work in Hollywood making Marvels, if they’re lucky. Chloe Zhao made Nomadland, then bombed with Eternals. Nonetheless, she’s still working.
In other words, it costs millions to establish a filmmaker with a process that is due far more to luck than talent and skill. There is another way, coming up through the Director’s Guild system, from third to first assistant director to full director — I believe most never make that final leap — but it’s not a path I’ve experienced personally.
For premium series, it doesn’t matter if the director has pulled all that off: The director of the series pilot has to be one of yet another short list of prestigious names that non-creative execs believe will mitigate their risk.
AN END TO THE CLONE WARS?
When my former-agent friend said that Hollywood never changes, she was referring to the culture that views what I did by publishing the exposé as high treason, despite the fact that I’m the (likely) wronged party who has done the opposite of accusing anyone of wrongdoing in the name of trying to get my colleagues and readers stuck in the trap of social-justice threat-elevation constructs to accept that creative appropriation is a necessary, unavoidable part of the creative process.
What I meant by “Hollywood is changing” is that the Tri-Factor Vortex churning right now feels similar to seachanges that have affected filmed content since the foundation of Hollywood over a hundred and ten years ago: the advent of sound, then color; the studio system, and its collapse; the rise of the mega-talent agencies; the drastic u-turn toward realism, breaking social taboos, known as New Hollywood; the rise and dominion of the blockbuster; the disruptive tsunami of tech companies and streaming, and the subsequent diminishment of theatrical releases.
It’s hard to see what the outcome will be when you’re in the middle of a change so important that it might be defined as a new era of Hollywood’s history. I don’t believe that history repeats; however, certain behaviors in response to similar circumstances do.
Hollywood always responds to consumer demand, just not as quickly as it used to. Since we settled into the blockbuster era in the early 80s, the New Hollywood era on life support in the ICU, studios have determined what people see, not vice-versa. As producer Ram Bergman said in a New York Times piece about the sun setting on Sundance, “You are dealing with a lot of the studios that have convinced themselves that [indie dramas] cannot really do well in theaters. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
To get some sense of the past and changing tastes, I’ve looked at the top-grossing genres historically. This graph in a blog post by G.S. Perno for Cinelinx is mildly fascinating:
Note that dramas, my specialty, begin to drop off at the turn of the century. They make two blips on the chart in the 2010s and fall away completely in 2016. Execs would be right to consider those blips anomalies, if they weren’t setting them up for failure with the prejudiced groupthink that informs their constantly expanding list of reasons to say “No.”
This means that a genre that dominated for Hollywood’s first sixty years, from the Silent Era till the Blockbusters, which is also the dominant genre for awards season, is now “specialty box office,” as Deadline calls it, perhaps to avoid the dreaded monicker that conjures unpaid rent and near-bankruptcy for those of us not in regional-language cinema backed by governments: “art house cinema.”
The above grid is “a bit busy,” as Hannah Gadsby said about the rainbow Pride flag in her first breakout show, before Marxist-feminist zombies ate her brain she became a gender-queer activist. Let me break down the most-influential genres by decade:
1940s: Dramas and Musicals
1950s: Adventure/Epics, Dramas, and Musicals
1960s: Comedies, Adventure/Epics, Dramas, and Musicals
1970s: Dramas, Comedies, and a bit of Action
1980s: Comedies, with far fewer Dramas, Sci-Fi, and Action in equal portions.
1990s: Comedy, Sci-Fi, and Action (wave buh-bye Dramas)
2000s: Animated, Adventure/Epics, Comic Book/Superhero, Action
2010s: Comic Book/Superhero, Animated, Sci-Fi, Adventure/Epics
The 2020s have been tricky because of the pandemic. So far the chart shows comic book/superhero as lagging behind adventure/epics. Warners Bros. two-headed victory, Barbenheimer, the portmanteau of a comedy and a drama respectively, is an ongoing seismic event that will likely change the way execs look at both genres for theatrical release. But you can bet they will peg them as “outliers,” just as they do Best Picture Oscar winners; for example, there was no surge in India-based content after Slumdog Millionaire jubilantly swept the 2009 Oscars, much to my disappointment.
If Barbenheimer does change attitudes, I doubt it will have the same effect that Warner Bros.’ The Jazz Singer had in 1927. That was change brought about by tech, like the rise and dominance of CGI and later streaming. The change we’re in right now, if we’re in one at all, is socio-cultural, similar to the one that brought about the demise of the artificiality of the Studio System by the realism of New Hollywood.
I’ve long seen the Blockbuster Era as being Studio System 2: The Suits Strike Back. What I believe we’re seeing now is the dawn of New Hollywood II: Return of the Creatives. This won’t be an immediate change, but rather an overlapping for five or six years while Hollywood adjusts to the new dynamic, as it’s always been. Right now I don’t see how Studio System 2 gets bums on seats again by managing content through the dense filters of restrictions of corporate culture: performance reviews, hitting quotas, prestige brokering, relying on formulas, rehashing past hits into visual Muzak. To succeed they’re likely going to have to rely more on input about what gets produced from — gulp! — those pesky, screaming creatives.
Dramas have made a major comeback on streaming; it’s now by far the dominant genre globally followed by action and animated. If the studios threw half the budgets of comic book/superhero movies and turned out well-marketed epic dramas, they might discover that dramas being box office poison is indeed a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The WGA is back at the bargaining table with the AMPTP as of last Friday. Now that the actors have joined the fray, it’s becoming impossible for studios, networks, production companies and other guild signatories to maintain the sort of leverage that would tilt negotiations in their favor.
I agree with many of the grievances that have brought about the WGA/SAG-AFTRA strikes. It simply isn’t fair that executives and administrators of a manufacturing business with little knowledge, talent or skill to make the product themselves are given dominance and such a huge chunk of the pie. That’s across the board in American industries: Glorified bookies on Wall Street living like kings on the backs of the creative class in tech and other sectors isn’t right.
This isn’t some ideological dive into Marxism on my part, with the working-class proletariat rising up against the bourgeoisie, namely because creative professionals across the arts and tech are the opposite of unskilled and semi-skilled labor of the kind Marxism champions; it’s corporate bourgeoisie v. creative bourgeoisie.
Unfairness tends not to last long in Hollywood thanks to the unions and to the pigheadedness of people with vocations. I’m not uncompassionate: We must be such a pain in the ass for suits to manage, so they label our passion and ferocious tenacity by calling us “difficult” and barring even certified geniuses from the set, despite the fact those are the very people who will yank them out of the Tri-Factor Vortex.
However, I’m mildly ambivalent about protecting writers’ rooms to the degree being demanded. Trying to stop the advent of AI isn’t how we do things in America — it’s protectionism, and protectionism begets crap and makes us less competitive.
I can see the producers’ collective shrug now: “What competition?”
In 2011, I went through a period of wanting to reinvent myself as a schlepping writer as part of my pitch as I flounced around town looking for local representation, declaring to prospective agents and managers with an excited ingenue’s can-do, let’s-put-on-a-play zeal: “I’d love to be in a writer’s group-circle-thing!”
“A writers’ room?”
“That’s it. Yes, one of those. I’d love that.” To a man and woman, they looked at me like I was out of my mind.
Writers’ rooms are salt mines of scriptwriting. Why are we protecting them? The British film and TV industry only now beginning to have something vaguely like them; otherwise, it’s usually been one writer and a stalwart story editor. British content is not worse as a result; on the contrary, it’s usually far superior. Too many writers spoil the script, in my opinion.
As a features person — it feels so quaint writing that — my judgment might be clouded by wishful thinking once again because of my more global approach in my specific kind of work, but I think that theatrical releases are going to have to take a cue from streaming and broaden their international scope. Franchises like James Bond and Mission Impossible are merely Anglo-centric stories set in exotic international locations.
Forty years ago, at the twilight of New Hollywood and the dawn of the Blockbuster era and, 7% of Americans had passports. Now it’s 40%. We are heading toward the United States of the World; in my view, we’re already there. Streaming has international appeal down pat and getting better at it. How is Hollywood going to respond to the need for deeper internationalizing — in other words, true diversity, not just paying lip service to DEI — at a feature level?
America has always been all about the money. Hollywood is no different, and shouldn’t be, especially considering the enormous risks of insane amounts of capital that filmed content entails. If they see the value of internationalizing it, they’ll do it.
For me, the success of Barbenheimer is most notable because it’s two “smart” directors who have saved the summer; one of whom, Greta Gerwig, ordinarily only does indie/awards films. Right now, execs are probably focusing on replicating that success with children’s toy tie-ins and maybe war dramas, given how All Quiet on the Western Front also overperformed over the last award season.
That default to copying hits is a waste of time and money, in my view. The real lesson from Barbenheimer is that both Greta Gerwig and Chris Nolan are auteur filmmakers. As with the original New Hollywood and its creation of the auteur, they are probably the only kind of filmmakers able to deliver something different to theaters and get a decent attendance up again, although not on the level of blockbusters at the height of the Studio System 2 era.
Comic books/superhero movies and other tentpoles-franchises-merry-go-rounds won’t go away completely, but their lock on theatrical content is probably waning rapidly. I would break those budgets up, make three audacious movies instead of one carbon copy, and you might even see the return of movie stars, instead of having to resort to anti-aging geriatric headliners from an era that’s already on its way out the door.
As for Hollywood corporate behavior, it might be changing toward less general douchebaggery and disrespectfulness, but my former-agent friend is right: it will always remain essentially the same. Filmmaking is an egotism magnet that you learn to let go of in the trenches of development and production, but prestige brokering is everything on the corporate side, a form of currency more abstract than crypto that’s allowed way too much influence in the decision-making process.
I believe Generative AI can level the playing field. In other words, it’s not the writers, directors and talent that should be replaced with AI, but the executives themselves.
In its current state, generative AI is perfectly capable of making sound qualitative decisions about creative worthiness. In my view of the future, it would instantly match the project in question with box-office/viewership history, even spit out near-perfect budgets and schedules in an instant. While this does take away work from a tiny minority of the industry — script analysts and a limited part of a line producer’s contribution to the development process — the end result would be better content that people will pay to see in theaters.
What has to be changed is the development and greenlighting process, and that’s where AI can be embraced. I envision the development of three or four standardized AI-based programs that evaluate scripts, a more complex form of the three credit bureaus, Equifax, Experian and Trans-Union.
An AI program called Filmustage was launched in March 2023. I’ve only given it a cursory look, and haven’t tested it, but it seems to hit every area of the scripting and budgeting process that I would recommend.
Again, there would need to be a few of these programs. Variables like AI hallucinations and prejudicial social-justice guardrails mean that an aggregate is likely the fairer option. The dominion of College Board standardized testing, for instance, has screwed up the education system.
Whatever the mechanisms that lessen the near-absolute authority of executives and non-creative producers over greenlighting and production decisions, either something changes drastically in Hollywood’s system or the Tri-Factor Vortex will do more damage than it needs to.
Will Hollywood change? Yes: It has always evolved; it’s merely a question of the scale of change. It’s all for the greater good of the industry; still, Studio System 2 culture is so deeply ingrained, too much of the disturbing, borderline sociopathic behavior taken for granted that it will meet great resistance before New Hollywood II has fully ascended.
Either way, it’s fine by me. I’ve turned my back on it. Aum, shanti, aum.
Thanks for reading.