Make American Movies Great Again

Posted: August 10, 2016 in Uncategorized
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make.phpThe state of American movies can best be summarized by the old Borscht Belt joke employed by Woody Allen in Annie Hall as his metaphor for life. Two old women are suffering through a miserable meal at a restaurant. One says to the other, “This food is terrible!” And the other says, “Yes, and such small portions.” In 2016, American movies are terrible – and there are way too few of them.

There are a handful of reasons – some obvious, others not. Hollywood has become obsessed with gross over profit. Prestige is now measured almost strictly in box office grosses. Studios focus narrowly on numbers, particularly those generated in the opening weekend. The business model behind this approach is that individual movies are of far less importance than properties than lead to franchises that provide the opportunities for additional products. If you watch certain films as simply two-hour commercials of the type that generally run during Saturday morning children’s programming, they make a great deal more sense. The aim of the movie is motivate you to buy something: tickets to another movie, admission to a theme park, a comic book, an action figure. And when I say you, I don’t mean you. I mean the 10-year old kid sitting in front of you.

The trend toward fewer major studio films and the overwhelming tendency for these films to be reboots or sequels rather than original endeavors has been well documented. For some time, the hope was that as more of these movies fail at the box office, Hollywood would adjust. Well, Houston, we have a problem. The feedback loop is broken. Failure is not only an option now; it’s standard operating procedure. The American filmgoing public is simply not as important as at any time since good old Thomas Alva Edison invented the movie camera. Now, in 2016, when a movie bombs, we cannot be sure that we won’t be seeing more of the same.

Take a look at the worldwide film grosses for 2016, courtesy of the incomparable web site, Box Office Mojo. Of the top ten movies to date, only two have more than half of their gross from U.S. audiences: Finding Dory and The Secret Life of Pets. Two of the Top 12 have earned their positions even though U.S. audiences have contributed less than one percent to the gross: The Mermaid and Monster Hunt. The success of those two films are due to the burgeoning Chinese market, which as reflected in the success of their own films, is no cause for concern.

What is of concern is the distortive effect of the Chinese, and, to a lesser degree, other overseas markets, on the cumulative box office take for certain products of American studios. The prime example is Warcraft, a film with a budget of over $160 million and domestic box office earnings of just over $47 million. That is the textbook definition of a bomb. Or, rather, it used to be. Warcraft ranks 11th on the worldwide grosses list for 2016, due to making $385 million overseas. Independence Day: Resurgence fared slightly better with $102 million from the U.S. theaters, but add another $276 million from the rest of the world, and you realize that we remain under the sinister threat of more mediocre sequels.

What will ultimately save us from Warcraft IV: Orcs vs. Zombies and Independence Day 9: Vengeance for Revenge of the Return of the Wrath of Will Smith is movie theater owners, specifically, the corporations that own and operate the largest chains in the United States. While studios are happy to sell tickets anywhere, AMC, Regal, Cinemark and other chains need better films to keep American behinds in the leather recliners of the newly refurbished theaters and to keep American hands plunging into trough-sized buckets of buttered popcorn purchased from the concession stands. And while the clout of the U.S. box office is diminishing, it remains significant, not only in ensuring profitability, but in providing financing. The history of the U.S. film industry has shown that when theater owners complain, studios listen.

So what to do? How do we make American movies great again?

(1) Make more movies. Forego one $200 million blockbuster and make ten $20 million dollar films that have terrific scripts.

(2) Reward new directors with funding for the own projects. Too many times, promising young talent is signed and sent to direct the next Godzilla movie or another installment in the Marvel universe. If we want another era like the 1970’s when new directors burst onto the scene and changed the industry, we need to give the up-and-comers greater discretion.

(3) Embrace the competition. Theater owners should work toward building audiences for foreign films. Mermaid was a fun film. The best horror movies of 2016 have been the Korean flicks The Wailing and Train to Busan. All three of these movies deserved wide distribution in the U.S. Even if the first few weeks are slow, let word of mouth spread. Audiences seeking quality from whatever source will pressure the studios to make better products.

Let’s start with these modest steps, and see where it takes us. It’s not our last, best chance, by any means, but it might be enough to start us on the path to another golden age of American cinema.

  1. Pablo says:

    Thanks for the recommendations (the Korean films).

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