6 Hollywood Studio Executives Discuss the State of the Film Industry

Justin Morrow

The Hollywood Reporter recently sat down with the major studio chiefs for an hour-long discussion of the state of the industry, and while it’s definitely worth watching, because we love you so much, we went ahead and put together a list of 3 takeaways from the video, featuring Donna Langley (Chairman, Universal Pictures), Tom Rothman (Chairman, Sony Pictures Motion Picture Group), Rob Moore (Vice Chair, Paramount Pictures), Stacey Snider (Co-Chairman, 20th Century Fox), Alan Horn (Chairman, The Walt Disney Studios), and Rob Friedman (Co-Chair, Lionsgate Motion Picture Group) and moderated by Pamela McClintock and Kim Masters, Editor-at-Large and Senior Film Writer for THR, respectively.

Their discussion ran the gamut from cyber-terrorism to Star Wars and all points in between, and since an arthouse film is just as much a part of the culture as a superhero flick, its worth checking out the state of the industry, and listening in on the equivalent of a meeting of the five families from, fittingly, the second Godfather film.

Hollywood is Increasingly Less of an “Old Boy’s Club”

The rap on the movie business has always been that a bunch of middle-aged men have been sitting around making decisions about what America (and the world) is fed on the big screen, usually making these decisions over lunch. And while lots of deals are still made between the appetizer and main course, they increasingly involve powerful women, including Donna Langley, current head of Universal Pictures, and Stacey Snider, who is co-chair at 20th Century Fox with Jim Gianopulos. (Before that, she ran Universal from 1999 to 2006.)

“I got mad at myself. I failed as a negotiator because I gave up early. I didn’t want to keep fighting over millions of dollars…I would be lying if I didn’t say there was an element of wanting to be liked that influenced my decision to close the deal without a real fight.” -Jennifer Lawrence

So 1/3 of the execs at the table were women, and when the issue of Jennifer Lawrence’s essayon gender inequality was raised, the table was vocal that opportunities for women in Hollywood are greater than ever before, though Snider was quick to point out that she could “mentor more” and “enable young female writers and directors to have access” to the echelons of power. Snider and Langley also said that Lawrence’s most salient point was how women are perceived in society, not just Hollywood; women are, it is felt, considered to be more accommodating and less likely to rock the boat, though everyone pointed out that stars are paid based on a number of variables, and several female stars, including Lawrence, have crossed the $20 million dollar salary line that also includes Sandra Bullock and Angelina Jolie. Her letter was prompted by an inequality of points on American Hustle, where her male co-stars received more backend than her, even though she was a bigger star.

These numbers, though, probably seem academic to the average indie filmmaker or average citizen. They’re a bit like the speed of light: comprehensible in theory, but yet, you know, not. I mean, why does light have to go that fast? What’s the rush? That said, it’s interesting to see that with the possibility of a woman in the White House, Hollywood is (maybe cynically, but, you know, Hollywood) is catching up, though women in the workplace still earn less, and the middle class is way behind the 1% that Lawrence and all the studio executives are a part of. Food for thought, y’all.

“Variables” decide Directors

The leap from indie filmmaker to Hollywood helmer is a huge one, and even tougher to make than the jump an actor has to make. Because while acting is generally seen as a matter of luck (some people just look good on camera; one has only to look at the proliferation of ‘selfies’ to see that sometimes the most attractive people can look downright weird on film, and vice versa. And the ineffable “x-factor” that makes one movie a hit and one a dud is the same thing that makes Jonah Hill an Oscar nominee, which probably Superbad‘s audiences were not predicting. Maybe Nate Silver, though.

When it was posed to the execs that a young hot shot director (usually a male one, though there were other topics discussed besides gender inequality) can make a successful indie film and frequently find themselves waking up in charge of a tentpole picture, Alan Horn was quick to point out that the rather astonishing success of director and screenwriter Colin Trevorrow, 39, who helmed a short film in 2002, then the indie Sundance favorite Safety Not Guaranteedin 2012then Jurassic Worldand will be in charge of the latest Star Wars film, was not an accidental event.

Rather, Trevorrow had it in his mind, Horn said, to place himself next to Brad Bird, Steven Spielberg, and that Safety was a film made with the intention of showing his commercial chops, and ability to strike a certain, commercial friendly “tone.” Like it or not, an experimental filmmaker is not going to get a franchise, and, in all likelihood, they wouldn’t want one. There is a certain sensibility that a director has to have in order to make the leap into tentpole pictures, and some people, like actress Elizabeth Banks, who is directing the latest Hunger Games (as well as appearing in it) have it; this sensibility comes down to the indie filmmaker’s ability to compromise, just writ large.

Any of the studio chiefs are not going to give the potential for billions of dollars to an auteur, and an auteur who directs a tentpole film usually puts their indie spirit to the side and makes a movie that is, as Friedman of Lionsgate pointed out, for ages “8 to 88,” which is how he described the Twilight franchise, when he was asked about its status as a YA (young adult) film.

“Do I Have to See it Now? Do I Have to See it on the Big Screen?”

According to Rob Moore, the proliferation of options in media has meant that, in his words, “the audience is evolving.” Where once films played theatrically for up to a year, a practice that started to decline with the advent of consumer-grade VCRs and video rental outlets, the VOD of its time. “The audience isn’t looking six months in advance,” he continues, meaning that with so much out there, people are far less likely to maintain their interest in a film for the traditional period between a film’s withdrawal from theaters and its release for home viewing, mostly because of the rampant piracy of films, which has evolved from the days of people taking video cameras into movie theaters (though those can still be found). But studios want to make money, and they also want to feel that their money has been spent wisely, on production values which are lost in many streaming, low-quality iterations of popular films.

In order to combat this, Paramount has initiated a revolutionary new program whereby the time between a film’s theatrical release and its availability on VOD is drastically cut: the newest entry in the Paranormal Activity franchise, Ghost Dimension, opened on October 23 in 1,350 theaters, and grossed $67.1 million dollars in its first two weeks, including international sales (which, all the executives stressed, is a huge component of the Hollywood model, even more so than before).

And since the Paranormal Activity movies cost relatively nothing to make, by Hollywood standards ($10 million, which is not half of Jennifer Lawrence’s salary for Passengers) there’s a huge opportunity to see big financial gains. But Paramount is aiming to maximize its profits even further by entering into a deal with 7 major theater chains, including AMC, whereby 17 days after the film is only on 300 screens, it becomes available on VOD, and the theaters are compensated with a 2-4% share of the profits for their loss of revenue.

Ironically, some of the chains involved did not want their participation publicized, because they feel like this business move will bring bad publicity (and in all fairness, it might). After all, when a movie chain is taking money to not show movies, it seems like “the beginning of the end.” People get “emotional” about the movie going experience, about sitting in the dark with a hundred or so strangers and watching someone’s dream play out, bigger than life (and then you can go get coffee and pie and talk about it).

No home viewing experience will ever replace the movie theater, but as this fascinating state of the industry talk shows, the suits are firmly in control of a fundamentally uncontrollable business, where some movies that are guaranteed smashes flop, and other tiny releases build on word-of-mouth make it in front of millions of eyes. It’s why we make make movies, at the end of the day; to tell stories, to connect, to dream while we’re awake. And in an industry that’s changing every minute, no filmmaker can afford to be ignorant of any facet of the industry, even if they shoot films on their smart phones. Because as experience has demonstrated time and time again, movies are as unpredictable as dreams.

The more you know…

A public service message from your friends at No Film School.


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