Friday, January 28, 2011

Film Friday: Moon (2009)

Moon is a lost opportunity. It’s not a bad film and you will probably enjoy it, but it could have been so much more. Why? Because Moon centers around a twist that gets exposed early in the film, and rather than explore any of the large number of interesting consequences of that twist, the film just spends the rest of its run time telling you what you already knew about the twist.

** heavy spoiler alert **

Before we begin, let me state very clearly that to discuss this film requires me to delve into the twist and how it’s resolved. So if you haven’t seen the film, go see it first, then come back and comment. . . always comment! ;-)

Moon is the story of Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell -- Galaxy Quest), an employee of LUNAR, a company that provides 70% of the Earth’s energy needs. LUNAR does this by mining the moon for helium-3. Sam is the sole operator of the moon base that overseas the mining operation. Watching over Sam is GERTY 3000, the base’s computer (voiced by Kevin Spacey).

As Sam nears the end of his three year contract, he is injured in an accident. Shortly thereafter, we discover the twist -- Sam is a clone, and doesn’t know it. We discover this when a second Sam is awakened to take the place of the injured one, who is presumed dead. He then discovers Sam 1 and the two Sams try to figure out what is going on. Soon they learn there are hundreds of frozen Sams in the basement.

As plot twists go, this is pretty good. And in line with what I’ve said before about good twists, this twist is organic to the story, i.e. it doesn’t feel tacked on. That's good. But ultimately, this twist feels flat because the film fails to exploit it. Indeed, making the Sams aware of each other creates fertile ground for some pretty interesting storytelling, but Moon fails to addresses any of the issues that raises. Instead, the film spends the next hour reminding you over and over of the twist. Specifically, the two Sams spend their time slowly figuring out things you already knew from the twist itself. For example, they discover the other Sams, that original Sam went back to Earth, that their communications with Earth are artificially jammed by the company, that the used Sams are eliminated, that GERTY knows the truth, and that the company will kill them if the company discovers they have met. But none of this is the least bit surprising. How else could such an operation be handled? If you ship the Sams from Earth, then what would be the point in sending clones, i.e. where are the cost savings? If GERTY didn’t know, how could it wake the new Sams? If the communications weren’t jammed, how could the company maintain the information blackout? None of this is a revelation or all that interesting.

What would have been interesting would have been to follow up on any of the numerous issues raised by the twist itself. For example:

(1) What am I? This is a classic science fiction question. What does it do to your self-image/understanding to suddenly realize you’re a clone or that you have a clone? These are fertile areas for an examination of the self, i.e. what makes us who we are or what makes us human (see, e.g. Blade Runner). But Moon doesn’t go into that. Instead, Sam 1 half-heartedly refuses to believe he’s a clone for some time and then acts like a spoiled child, while Sam 2 acts kind of bored.

(2) Can two clones get along? Would two identical clones get along? Or would they hate each other? Would we really like ourselves once we saw a live, third-person version of ourselves? Heck, would we even recognize ourselves (other than physically of course)? Again, Moon doesn’t tell us. Indeed, despite being the only two people on this very small moon base and being thrown into the middle of something monumental, they barely interact with each other, even after they realize the company is likely sending people to kill them.

(3) How will GERTY 3000 (read: HAL 9000) react? 2001 has fascinated the world for forty years because we want to understand why HAL did what he did. GERTY is given the perfect moment for an existential crisis: his programming is to “protect Sam,” but now he’s confronted with multiple Sams with conflicting interests. Who does he choose? How does he decide? Again, Moon takes the easy way out and GERTY never sees a conflict.

(4) What’s does the company do now? The company spent billions of dollars setting up this elaborate hoax. What will the company do when it discovers the Sams uncovered their hoax? What are their options, how do they resolve that decision? We don’t know. Moon takes the easy way out and finds a reason the company doesn’t know the Sams have met.

(5) What about the moral questions? What are the moral implications for the company? What are the moral implications for the real Sam Bell, who let the company clone him and use the clones in this way? Because of him, these Sams think they have a wife and daughter. Presumably, both he and the company knew the clones would be killed after three years, is that wrong? Do the Sams have a responsibility to the Sams in the basement? Are they even alive yet as they haven’t woken up? And if the awake Sams don’t owe anything to the frozen Sams, what does that say about the company’s responsibility to the awake Sams? There is much here to consider, any of which would have added significant depth to this film. But Moon glosses over all of it.

In the end, Moon is a film with a neat twist and a lot of potential. The plot is strong enough to be entertaining. The atmospherics are good (kind of like Solaris). The effects are great -- models, not CGI. The soundtrack is pretty good too, very standard Clint Mansell. But the film could have been so much more. This film could have been Blade Runner meets 2001 meets Outland, but it never dreamed big enough. Some of the critics complained about the lack of action, but it wasn’t action this film needed, it needed depth and vision. It needed to address the issues it teed up. . . but it didn’t.

And that’s why even though this was a good film, it was a totally disappointing film too.

[+]

Friday, January 21, 2011

Film Friday: Blade Runner (1982)

Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner is brilliant. This is filmmaking at its best because it takes science fiction and stretches it to its fullest potential, both in terms of storytelling and as an intellectual experience. It’s also noteworthy for being massively culturally relevant because it redefined “dystopia” for a new generation, and in so doing, it signaled the end of the counter-culture’s influence in science fiction.

** spoiler alert **

Loosely based on “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” by Philip K. Dick, Blade Runner is the story of Richard Deckard (Harrison Ford), a police specialist who hunts down and "retires" escaped androids, known as Replicants. Deckard is pursuing four Replicants, led by Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), who illegally returned to Earth to find their maker, who they believe can extend their lifespans, which are artificially limited to four years. Despite the seeming simplicity of this summary, Blade Runner is a highly complex and innovative film. Indeed, it singlehandedly redefined the confines of science fiction as well as our view of dystopia.
Dystopia Lost, Dystopia Changed
Prior to Blade Runner, dystopian films invariably involved societies that appeared perfect on the surface, but were soulless underneath. From Logan’s Run to Rollerball to Fahrenheit 451, these societies appeared health, happy and peaceful, but something was always missing, some element of humanity was stripped away. This concept fit perfectly with the clash between the counter-culture and the conformity society created after World War II. But Blade Runner changed that.

The dystopian world of Blade Runner is dark, dirty and full of the twisted dregs of humanity. This is a world that destroyed itself, not with a bang but with neglect, where those who could escape to a better life moved to the off-world colonies, leaving humanity's flotsam to fester in the collapsing, polluted world left behind. Moreover, this dystopia came about because society fell apart, not because society was too tightly controlled, as was the case in prior dystopian films. Thus, whereas the pre-Blade Runner view of dystopia was the counter-culture’s view of the worst aspects of conformist society run amok, the dystopia in Blade Runner was society’s view of the worst elements of the counter-culture run amok. And with rare exceptions, this has become the view of dystopia which dominates films today. Blade Runner marks this serious shift in societal attitudes.
Where No Science Fiction Has Gone Before
Blade Runner also singlehandedly expanded the bounds of science fiction. How? By realizing that science fiction need not follow the trappings and conventions of science fiction, and by realizing that any story can be interpreted as science fiction. Indeed, nowhere in Blade Runner will you find spaceships or laser-gun fights or aliens and strange planets. Even the very dialog of Blade Runner is unlike anything that came before. For example, whereas science fiction always had a penchant for long, quasi-melodramatic dialog and grandiose plots, Blade Runner introduced the minimalism of film noir, with punchy but sparse dialog and inwardly focused plots.

All of this was new and it showed that any story could be told as science fiction, not just stories about rocket ships. In fact, I would argue that Blade Runner actually demonstrated that science fiction was not so much its own genre, as it had always been understood to be, but was really a setting in which other genres could be played out. In other words, Blade Runner showed there is no such thing as a science fiction movie, there is instead a crime story, or mystery, or comedy, or love story set in a science fiction world.
It’s Great Because It Expands Your Mind
Finally, let’s finish with what makes Blade Runner such a great film. Beside the obvious, i.e. great acting, super writing, and eye-catching settings, it was the philosophical questions that lifted Blade Runner to another level. The primary question Blade Runner asks is what does it mean to be human. It does this through an examination of three characters: Deckard, Rachael and Roy.

Rachael (Sean Young) is a Replicant who doesn’t know she’s a Replicant. She works for the head of the Tyrell Corporation, the creator of the Replicants, and her life seems real enough. She has an apartment, a job, photos of her childhood, and even memories of growing up. She walks, talks, breathes, thinks and appears to experience the complete range of human emotions. Yet, she is a machine. But does that really matter? She seems human in every way. She is emotionally aware. She has no expiration date like the rest. And she doesn’t even know she’s a machine. So what makes her different than the humans around her?

Roy is easily the most interesting of the three; he’s also the most human (intentionally so). Roy is programmed to be an assassin, and he knows he’s a Replicant. He also knows he’s designed to expire after a five year lifespan, a safeguard put in place because Tyrell discovered Replicants would develop full-blown emotions after five years. . . a quicker time than human children mature. Roy desperately wants more life, and the way to get that, he thinks, is to confront his maker. But when Tyrell tells Roy it’s impossible to extend his life, Roy kills his creator. He then decides to toy with and kill Deckard as a form of spite for his own pending death. But at the last moment, just before Roy expires, he suddenly realizes the value of life and he saves Deckard from death. In effect, Roy fully matures from a mere tool to an emotional child to a fully-mature adult, which is a remarkable transformation for a machine.

Here we are given several issues to consider. First, we are asked what makes Roy not-human. Unlike Rachael (or even the other Replicants who came to Earth with Roy), Roy has fully repudiated the false past he was given. He’s also thrown off his programming and set about becoming his own man. He's an independent being with free will, and he craves life and, ultimately, comes to understand its value. In this way, Roy becomes more human than many real humans will ever be. Yet, he is a machine. So is he alive or isn’t he? And what makes him so? Also, what of Roy’s relationship with his creator? What does Roy killing his creator say about Roy’s independence and ours? Would we lash out the same way if we learned that our creator was some flawed, mortal creature? Would that set us free or would it lessen us?

Lastly, we come to Deckard, the human we use for comparison. But there’s a problem with Deckard. . . we’re not actually sure he’s human. At no point does Blade Runner ever say or even openly suggest that Deckard is not human, but the evidence is there. He has no real life outside of his job and no past about which we learn. He has memories of childhood and photos, but they are very similar to Rachael’s packaged memories. He’s emotionless, cold, and functional, i.e. he’s machinelike. Moreover, the one character we know to be human, because he’s physically defective, is Gaff (Edward James Olmos), and Gaff treats Deckard with disdain much as if he knows Deckard is merely a deluded machine. So is Deckard human or not? We don’t know and that’s the beauty of the writing. We are left to try to justify his humanity in ways that differentiate him from Roy and Rachael, and in the process we explore what it is that makes us human and alive.

Finally, one last issue worth discussing is hinted at throughout the film: why make Replicants at all? Why not just make functional robots, rather than making them look and act human? One possible explanation involves the purposes to which these Replicants were put -- “off world hit squad” and “pleasure model,” i.e. because they would need to blend in. But what does that say about us? It’s easy to see these as purposes to which we would actually put androids, but that means we would be striving to put ourselves on a par with God, only to use our greatest achievement (creatures created in our own image) to satisfy our basest instincts or our most evil desires. That doesn’t say much for us, does it? And what does it say that we don’t even give these creatures free will? As self-made God, we certainly seem to come up short. So could we create real Replicants to achieve only our better instincts? Would we? And if they are alive for all practical purposes, should we even try to create them, given our obvious flaws?

These are the kinds of questions Blade Runner raises and we can spend hours debating them. Indeed, this is where science fiction draws its strength, in its ability to ask these questions without angering the audience by insulting their faith, or race, or gender, or whatever. And by injecting these kinds of questions into what would otherwise be a simple story about a police officer hunting some escaped killers, this film suddenly takes on a level of depth that makes this more than just a film; it becomes an educational experience, as we are asked to examine our own beliefs and thereby understand ourselves a little bit better.

And that makes it pretty darn cool.

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Friday, January 14, 2011

Film Friday: Inception (2010)

Inception is a well-made, thoroughly enjoyable movie, but it’s not a “great” film like so many people say. In fact, I suspect this is yet another in a long line of films that seemed special at the time, but will quickly be forgotten. The reason for this is that Inception offers nothing new and, ultimately, it makes no sense.

** heavy spoiler alert **

The Plot

Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) can enter dreams and extract information. He and his partner are caught entering the mind of a man named Saito, who makes them an offer they cannot refuse. If they agree to place an idea into the mind of a competitor, Saito will clear-up a murder charge which keeps Cobb from returning to the United States to see his children -- the murder charge is the result of his wife’s suicide, for which the police blame Cobb. The concept of planting an idea into a mind is called “inception,” and this is supposed to be impossible, except Cobb has already done it once. Saito wants Cobb to cause a competitor to break up his own corporation. And while this sounds rather undoable at first, they come up with a very plausible way of making this idea take hold.

To plant this idea, they drug the competitor and force him into a shared dream controlled by one of Cobb’s team members. Once inside the dream, the team causes him to enter a second dream state and then a third to disorient him. This also has the benefit of giving the team more time, as each additional dream state feels an order of magnitude longer than the prior. Thus, a minute in the first dream feels like five minutes in the second and days in the third. But there’s a catch. To create three dream states requires a sedative, which makes it nearly impossible for the team to wake themselves from the dream and will cause them to fall into a limbo state, should they die in the dream. In this limbo state, they would spend a lifetime all by themselves before they awake in their current bodies -- this happened to Cobb and his wife, who now intrudes into his subconscious and creates problems. Also inside the dream, the team will be chased by trained killers from the subject’s subconscious. Despite these challenges, the team completes the mission successfully. However, as the movie ends, questions are raised as to whether or not they succeeded or whether Cobb is actually stuck in a dream state.

Before I discuss the problems, let me be clear. I enjoyed Inception very much. I thought it was well written, well acted, and well directed. Director Christopher Nolan (Memento, The Dark Knight) does an excellent job of walking the tightrope between keeping the mystery alive and confusing the audience and he provides a compelling, fast-paced story that keeps you guessing what will happen next and what will happen at the end of the film. He found excellent locations and he made the smart decision to keep the special effects shots to a minimum; this film contains only 500 such shots compared to an average of around 2000 for other similar movies, which gives the film a strong sense of realism. The acting was also quite good. Indeed, I find DiCaprio to be an excellent actor and he again delivers a solid performance. The supporting cast did a great job as well, except for Ellen Page, who is miscast as anything more than a teenage girl. Thus, I happily recommend this film.

But there are problems, and these are the kinds of problems that prevent the film from being memorable over the long term.
There’s Nothing New Here
The first problem strikes you the moment the film ends: this film offers nothing new. The concept of a dream world within a dream world has already been done in films like The Thirteenth Floor and The Matrix. And while there is nothing wrong with repeating a concept, you need to offer something new to keep the concept fresh -- either a new twist or an examination of some new aspect. Inception doesn’t do that. In fact, it offers nothing that wasn’t already in The Thirteenth Floor.

Why does this matter? It matters because great films always spark the imagination. Inception offers nothing to make you think. Compare Inception to The Matrix, both of which deal with the concept that the “real world” is not “real.” Unlike Inception, The Matrix is packed with shocking twists, philosophical conundrums, and a fascinating religious analogy. Thus, when The Matrix ends, you are left with a massive puzzle with many layers, and you can spend hours contemplating how the ideas in the film relate to our world. That’s not the case with Inception. Inception leaves you with only a single question: “was Cobb dreaming.” Once you’ve answered that, the film offers little else. It doesn’t even delve into topics like exploring the nature of dreams or what this limbo state would really be like. It tried at times to talk about how a kernel of an idea can change a person, but that was never developed. And that makes Inception forgettable, except as an action movie.
The Film Makes No Sense
The second problem arises because the film’s central mystery makes no sense. There are three possible states for Cobb: (1) he succeeded in his mission and woke up, (2) he could not wake up from the mission and remains in a dream state, or (3) the entire movie was a dream. But none of these can be true.

Cobb cannot be dreaming throughout the film because we can see what is happening to people who are not within sight of Cobb. Why does this matter? Because if this film was Cobb’s dream, then we are seeing what Cobb is dreaming, and he would know that he is dreaming because he can see plot points happening which he could not actually observe. But Cobb doesn’t realize he is dreaming, thus either Cobb can’t be dreaming or the story makes no sense. Yet, Cobb must be dreaming. Why? Because the film tell us he’s dreaming. The ending in particular indicates he’s dreaming. For example, he sees his children in the same poses and clothes he’s always seen them in throughout his dreams. They have not aged, despite the years he spent outside the country, and not a speck of dust has changed in his home since he fled it years before.

So maybe he’s only dreaming at the end, right? Except there are clues in every scene that Cobb is dreaming throughout the movie. For example, scenes start and stop suddenly, like in a dream, something Cobb himself notices. We are similarly told by numerous characters that his entire life has the quality of a dream, and it does -- faceless people try to kill him, people shoot at him at point blank range but somehow miss him, he has implausible run-ins with main characters like Saito in Mombasa, there are no transitions (bamo you’re in Paris, now you’re in Mombasa, now you're in Paris, now you’re in Sydney), and people act in ways that are entirely Cobb-centric (what exactly is his team being offered to do this? and doesn’t Saito have a company to run? and why would Cobb’s father in law pimp his illegal scheme to his best student?). These things only make sense if you accept that he is dreaming. Moreover, consider his children. When he calls them in the real world early in the film, the children are seen playing outside, again in the exact clothes and positions they exist in during his dreams, and again they haven’t aged. Secondly, who is the guy who gave him the ticket to escape the country? And why couldn’t he take his children with him? Or why can’t he be reunited with his children in another country? These are questions that can be overlooked in a dream, but not in reality, and they are overlooked here.

So he must be dreaming, but he can’t be dreaming, and that’s a contradiction which calls into question the entire storytelling technique. If he is dreaming, why are we shown things that can’t be part of the dream? But if he’s not dreaming, why does so much happen so conveniently, so impossibly, or so nonsensically? The answer is that we’re being tricked and manipulated to generate a mystery and that’s an unforgivable sin in this kind of storytelling. Manipulating the audience to hide the truth would be acceptable, because people see these kinds of stories as a mystery to be solved, i.e. they want to dig for the truth. But manipulating the audience to give two distinct impressions (dreaming/not dreaming), when neither is actually possible, is egregious. It would be like Agatha Christie giving you hints that Person A or Person B was the murderer and then concluding that the victim was murdered but no one could have killed him.

It is the nature of the insolvability of this story that will keep it from being remembered with other science fiction stories that have crossed into the “must see” category. Stories like The Matrix present us with mind-opening thoughts about reality. Stories like Blade Runner make us question what makes us who are. And to achieve that, they give us a genuine mystery to solve which requires us to question our own realities. Inception give us nothing of the sort. It offers nothing new and it never manages to call anything into question because the mystery is fake, we are simply being offered two choices, neither of which is real, in the hopes that we mistake the two choices as some sort of philosophical depth.

Thus, all we’re left with is an action movie. A good action movie, but an action movie nevertheless. Hence, while I enjoyed the film a good deal, I don’t see it having any significance nor do I see it lasting very long.

[+]

Friday, January 7, 2011

TV Review: The Twilight Zone (1959-1964)

There is something about the true classics that make them stand apart from all that came before and from all the copies that follow. The Twilight Zone is a classic. Indeed, despite decades of copies, nothing compares to the original. Ultra-creative stories, gripping plots, intense characters and perfect writing all combine to make the various episodes of The Twilight Zone not only unforgettable, but iconic and timeless.

Created by, narrated by, and mostly-written by Rod Serling, The Twilight Zone is part-drama, part-science fiction, part-fantasy, and part-anything else that came to Serling’s mind. Each episode stands alone, with each episode taking place in a different setting, from outer space to the old West to contemporary (1950s) America to the world of the future, and involving different characters.

The stories. . . well, the stories are where the The Twilight Zone becomes something special. Every episode of the The Twilight Zone involves a test of the human spirit. Some are morality plays, where characters are punished for their greed or avarice or jealousy or cowardice (or any other bad human trait). Some are tests of human limits to endure things like loneliness or the suffering of others. Some explore our fears or our sanity. Some explore the worst elements of human nature, such as our capacity to turn on each other. Some are warnings, such as the famous “wishing into the cornfield” episode, which offers an exaggerated example of what can happen when parents don’t provide boundaries for their children. Some are social commentaries.

Having all of this in a single show is itself rather unique and special. But what really separates The Twilight Zone from all its competitors, both the contemporary competitors like The Outer Limits and the subsequent copies like Amazing Stories and Ray Bradbury Theater, and the remakes of The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, are two critical differences:

First, you have the writing. Rod Serling is a genius, who should be considered among the greats with Shakespeare and Hemmingway. His dialog is brilliant. He always finds the perfect words for each line of dialog, and he has the courage to use only those words, without feeling compelled to hold the audience’s hand with unnecessary exposition or explanation and without filling his stories with meaningless distractions or unneeded filler. He also manages to keep his stories so well paced that they never lose your attention, and he does such a tremendous job of foreshadowing that you can never tell exactly where a story is headed even though the endings always seem inevitable when they finally arrive. A great measure of the quality of writing is to ask what could have been done to improve a story or a line of dialog, i.e. what would you take out or add to make the story/writing better. Only truly great works, like Serling’s Twilight Zone leave you with nothing that could be changed.

Secondly, and even more importantly, unlike all of the competitors, The Twilight Zone recognizes the good as well as the bad in human nature. For all of the bad things that happen in The Twilight Zone, it is surprisingly un-cynical; nothing is inevitable in The Twilight Zone and it's the rare character who isn’t given a fair chance. Indeed, when characters fail, they do so because they could not overcome their worst instincts. It is this fair examination of the human condition that leaves you wondering at the end of each episode how you would have responded, and it makes you think about our capacity for good and evil, altruism and greed, love and hate, and how easily we can be carried away by these things or how strong of character we can really be. By comparison, something like The Outer Limits (especially the remake) is pure cynicism, where no matter what the characters do, the worst possible result will happen, which leaves you only with the thought “gee, that sucks,” at the end of each episode.

Moreover, The Twilight Zone leaves plenty of room for good things to happen to good people, for cowards to overcome their fears, and for the good but odd to demonstrate that goodness trumps conformity. For example, who doesn’t smile when Mr. Bevis (Orson Bean) forgoes the successful “conformist” life to be who he really is, or when Wanda Dunn realizes that death (Robert Redford) is not something to be feared. These are the kinds of stories that make The Twilight Zone both a fascinating drama but also an uplifting show, and keep the episodes from blurring together as an unrelenting series of failures and disasters.

I think there are three lessons in The Twilight Zone for would-be modern storytellers. First, lose the cynicism. So many movies and books today are modeled on what the writers think are The Twilight Zone-like ideas, but these stories are so awash in cynicism that they’ve lost both the heart that drives The Twilight Zone and what makes it so interesting to us, and they’ve lost the range of stories the The Twilight Zone could tell.

The second lesson is something I find truly frustrating in modern storytelling (and I date this back largely to Star Trek TNG): a misunderstanding of what defines character. Modern storytellers think that character can be created by providing a detailed list of likes and dislikes and hobbies. But that’s not true. Character cannot be created by telling us that a character plays an instrument or drinks Klingon coffee; character can only be developed through the actions of the characters. Consider the pool game between Jonathan Winters and Jack Klugman. Although modern storytellers see the fact of Klugman playing pool as a significant indicator of his character, the reality is that this fact is irrelevant. Indeed, it does not matter to Klugman's character if his game is pool or poker or even basketball, what matters is his obsession with being the best -- that is what defines his character. The Twilight Zone understands this and that’s why its characters are fascinating to us: because they have flaws and strengths, just as we do, and they act according to those, just as we do. Thus, we learn who they are by seeing how they behave, we associate with them as we share their traits, and we invest in them because they become a proxy for our lives. Simply knowing someone’s hobbies just can’t provide a similar connection.

Finally, while The Twilight Zone relies in most episodes on some form of twist, it isn’t the twist that keeps us watching, it is how the characters react to the twist. In other words, if your story relies on the twist to keep people interested -- as so many modern movies do, then you’re doing it wrong. What really matters to a story is the characters, not the moment of shock or surprise.

It’s too bad more modern storytellers don’t get these points, because realizing these things could improve a lot of films.

All in all, The Twilight Zone is one of the few classics of the modern age that you really need to see. Its episodes are iconic and are some of the most copied and repeated stories of the modern world. It permeates our culture, and it set the standard against which all modern cinema should be judged.

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Thursday, January 6, 2011

Hollywood Stumbles. . . Actually, No

Hollywood profits were down slightly this year and ticket sales were off by a whopping 6%. Suddenly, a great many articles are being written announcing Hollywood's demise: they don’t know how to make good films, they have alienated their audiences, 3D has turned out to be a bust, and the sky is falling. The truth, however, is rather different. Indeed, no matter how much I wish their business model would fail so they would need to change the way they do business, the truth is that everything is fine for them.

Let’s start with my grievances. For those of you who've been reading my discussions of films, you will know that I think Hollywood has entered a dead period, where they are making nothing but poor, throw-away, formulaic junk. Indeed, if you compare the extraordinary number of top films that came out of the 1990s against the total lack of good films in this past decade, it’s obvious that something’s gone wrong:

Some of the Best of the 1990s. . . The "Best" I Could Find in the 2000s. . .
The MatrixLord of the Rings
Men In BlackThe Dark Knight
The Sixth SensePirates of the Caribbean
Jurassic ParkUp
Independence DayHarry Potter
The Lion King
Pulp Fiction
L.A. Confidential
Terminator 2
Saving Private Ryan
True Lies
Basic Instinct
Schinder's List
The Usual Suspects
Toy Story

But Hollywood isn’t about art, no matter what they say, it’s about profit. And when you look at profit, you quickly understand why they don’t care about my complaints.

Last year ticket sales fell 6%. And in the past decade, ticket sales fell six out of ten years, which compares poorly to the 1990s when sales rose six out of ten years or the 1980s when sales rose seven out of ten years. And when you compare the number of tickets sold during the decade with the population of America during that decade you find a drop in the number of tickets sold per person from the 1990s to the 2000s. In the 1990s, there were on average 5.2 tickets sold per person per year. In the 2000s, this number fell to 5.1 per year. So the studios must be freaking out right?

Actually no. When you look at the 1980s, you find that the number of tickets sold was only 4.9 per person per year. Thus, while the 2000s saw a loss of 0.1 tickets per person per year compared to the 1990s, it was still 0.2 tickets per person higher than in the 1980s. In other words, the studios sell more tickets per person today than they did 20 years ago. That’s hardly a reason to panic.

And don’t forget, this is despite the massive explosion of alternatives -- cable television, the internet, video games, video on demand, home theaters, etc. These same changes are killing network television and the old media, but Hollywood hasn't missed a step.

Moreover, despite somewhat falling tickets sales, profits are soaring. In 2010 and 2009, the studios made more than $10.5 and $10.6 billion in ticket sales. By comparison, the best year in the 1990s was only $7.5 billion, and the early 1990s saw sales below $4.9 billion. So in 20 years, the studio has more than doubled its income, and it’s on a nearly straight-line curve. That’s not an unhealthy business model.

If there is a problem, it’s the increasing costs the studios are facing, with the average cost of movies going up from $11.3 million per film in 1980 to $26.8 million in 1990 to $54.8 million in 2000. That poses a problem because that appears to mean that costs are doubling every decade, whereas profits are only doubling every two decades. But the answer to increasing costs is to cut those costs, not to hope for better sales. Consequently, Hollywood has begun shipping its productions overseas to low-cost places like India and non-union locations.

What all of this means is that the studios have no reason whatsoever to change what they are doing. Despite dramatic increases in ticket prices and all of the complaints we can level against the industry, people continue to buy tickets at about the same rate they’ve bought them for the last 30 years and dollar-value sales continue to double every decade. If there is a problem, it’s on the cost end, not the sales end, and that is not going to get them to worry more about story. Thus, no matter how much we may wish that Hollywood would listen to our complaints, they have no economic reason to listen or to change anything they do. Ug.

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