One came across a strange comment last month by moviemaker Peter Jackson who, in an interview to Moviefone, claims: “I don't really like the Hollywood blockbuster bandwagon that exists right now. The industry and the advent of all the technology, has kind of lost its way. It's become very franchise driven and superhero driven.”
This is the same Peter Jackson that recently adapted a relatively slight children’s book and spun it into a trilogy of super-expensive blockbusters with a collective running duration of nearly a dozen hours. There was never enough source material to justify three movies, which means that Jackson’s Hobbit franchise was essentially bloated fan-fiction from a film director whose A-list credentials are only intact while he’s making movies set in that world.
This brings us to the more serious matter of Hollywood cinema embarking on its grandest year of movie output. The last fifteen years have been building up to this moment in which derided terminology currently synonymous with mainstream American cinema (‘origins’, ‘reboots’, ‘remakes’, ‘franchises’ and ‘shared cinematic universes’) will be put to the test. For 2015 will be the year in which an avalanche of branded blockbusters hurtles our way. All of our proven blockbuster cravings will be sated as everything from Fast and Furious speed-bandits, Avenging Marvel superheroes, revived Jurassic dinosaurs, Forces Awakening in some dormant space opera, and multiple other tested movie familiarities will somehow find their place over the coming twelve months.
If one was a betting person then it seems obvious that the odds are stacked in Hollywood’s favour. But Hollywood needs some luck as it comes to terms with the results of last year which demonstrate that box-office revenue for 2014 fell 5.3% (its worst result since 2011), coupled with the stark reality that theatre attendance dropped by an estimated 6% to 1.26 billion, the lowest figure since the dark days of 1995.
Therefore it makes sense for the US film industry to only back winners, though the law of averages suggests that some of these sure-fire bets will underperform principally because no market can sustain a schedule in which every other product is an extravaganza of colossal proportions. Keynesian economics tells us that hedging all of your business decisions on such a bloated amount of products will ultimately fail, and that what is called for is a production slate where greater range of films may produce better fiscal dividends because you then hit more targets.
But that’s hard to do in 2015 when you get 35-year-old men sneaking into Pixar movies unaccompanied by children, and forty-something mothers eagerly anticipate the final Katniss Everdeen sequel even more than their teenage daughters. Ergo, the notion of catering to separate markets makes little sense when we all want to watch is the same things. Hollywood has it easy right now because consumers have greatly homogenised tastes. We are at a remarkable moment in our global cultural identity where whatever Hollywood churns out actually scores comparable money in foreign box-office. In a word, everyone’s hooked on mediocrity.
It will be churlish of us to brand those working in Hollywood as intellectually incapacitated people. In the main, they’re highly-educated and ambitious individuals. They know what the public wants and are able produce it for them. That takes skill, especially when your international audiences are growing exponentially. But the cyber-attacks on Sony Pictures Entertainment last year gave us insights, among other revelations, that those appointed to deliver such costly cinematic blandness are far from happy with the situation. Gawker revealed hacked correspondence that provided much needed perspective on the current state of studio filmmaking, with a member of Sony’s staff conveying: “There is a general ‘blah-ness’ to the films we produce. Althought (sic) we manage to produce an innovative film once in awhile, Social Network, Moneyball, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, we continue to be saddled with the mundane, formulaic Adam Sandler films. Let's raise the bar a little on the films we produce, and inspire employees that they are working on the next Social Network.”
Another leaked communiqué in Gawker’s report had a Sony worker saying: “We do not seem to be doing new or original ideas anymore unless they come from term deal players … Our development execs should focus on new fresh material, and not be permitted to simply remake …”
If anything it seems that Hollywood studios, albeit backroom personnel, are quite ashamed of the current situation in mainstream American moviemaking. Such despondency must resonate strongly across the backrooms of all studio offices, yet Hollywood’s focus remains on doing the very thing that may not be working, at least not in the way envisaged. Although audiences welcome more of the same, there is a reason why revenue is down and audience attendance is also decreasing, though, we cannot discount the fact that profits are greatly affected by the plethora of competing new media platforms demanding people’s attention.
Where the influx of expensive franchise blockbusters due in 2015 will take Hollywood is open to debate. Some of these movies will be good, but it is unsustainable to expect this current business model to work in the long run. There is also the thought that all this American produced material may eventually incur a greater sense of cultural nationalism in emerging markets, making those audiences court domestically produced films over Hollywood offerings.
Which brings us back to Peter Jackson, for having changed the face of blockbuster moviemaking, will now return to making “smaller films”. He came on to the scene having made a blockbuster that was unlike anything out there at the time, only to now see everything else resemble it in some way. Jackson’s sentiments perhaps even suggests that he as a filmmaker is folly to the trappings of generically epic moviemaking and needs to break away from it somehow. It’s out of control and no-one seems to know what to do about it, most notably those that created the beast.