Is Hollywood Cinema in Decline?
I have always had a fascination with cinema. When I was at college, whilst I did not choose it as a subject, my English Language investigation for my coursework was how American TV and film has affected Americanisation on the British language, and my original piece of writing was a review of Star Wars: The Last Jedi. To add to this, I also did my French oral exam questions on French Film. However, the most interesting writing I did related to film was for my Extended Project Qualification, where I wrote on how Hollywood cinema was in decline. When I said in decline, I was referring to the lack of original ideas and overall quality. Now, 2 years later, and with more examples, I will be discussing the same issue, looking at different reasons why it could be the case.
A Lack of New Ideas?
You could say the recycling of old properties is the reason Hollywood is stagnating. The problem with the cinematic climate at present is that due to a variety of reasons discussed later in the article, people are less likely to want to try something new, which results in new ideas being dead on arrival. In the last 10 years, we have had multiple new ideas, such as Anna and Tomorrowland: A World Beyond, which have been recieved poorly or not been supported at the box office, causing them to not be built upon. Therefore, when studios see this lack of enthusiasm for these potential new franchises, they fail to fund the development of it, and we get stuck with the same regurgitated movies. If you don’t believe me, the top 10 grossing films of last year were either parts of established franchises, or were a slight re-imagining of something that has already been done. Therefore, there is not a lack of new ideas, but a lack of confidence that they will succeed.
Perhaps the reason original ideas are less frequently used is because there is already so much great source material filmmakers can use as a guide. Again, looking at the most successful films of the last 20 years, a lot are based on books or comics. There are so many different series that are based off of novels: Lord of the Rings; Harry Potter; Hunger Games; Maze Runner; Divergent. These series already have a devout following, and even if people are worried the film will ruin the source material, they will most likely go see it to witness how their favourite characters are portrayed. If you have a ready-to-go set of stories, which have a good following, and just need to be adapted, why would studios waste time trying to create its own narrative or story?
With a lack of new ideas perpetuating the vicious circle of Hollywood’s failings, the new ideas which stick or they think will stick are being built as major franchises. Although the Star Wars Universe is arguably the original multi-movie spanning franchise by which others follow, the most influential movies at present are from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. At present, with over 20 movies and a lot of the more recent films grossing over 1 billion dollars at the box office, every studio is trying to get a piece of the action. In the last 5 to 10 years, pretty much every major property from the 80s, 90s and even 00s has either been rebooted or continued after a long gap, as they know using nostalgia is the most lucrative way of making movies. These include: Terminator; Alien; Predator; Blade Runner; Robocop; Star Wars; The Matrix; Halloween, to name a few. These have been recieved with mixed responses, with a common consensus that they never live up to the original.
Studios also try to do too much, too fast when it comes to building a franchise. There are two clear examples of this — Firstly, the Universal Dark Universe disaster. This was clearly a case of putting all your eggs in one basket, with the studio trying to establish the potential franchise in the middle of their first movie, The Mummy. As saw in the photo below, they had already took professional cast photos for the potential new films that were to be birthed, such as the Creature from the Black Lagoon. In fact, this is not even the first time they have tried to start a franchise based off of their classic works — Dracula: Untold was originally supposed to be the starting point. The Mummy, which blatantly ripped off the MCU in the way it had a central agency, with one agent being the thing that ties the movies together, was a box office failure, and subsequently ended talks of this tied universe. However, with the recent success of their latest property, the Invisible Man, a new way of continuing the movie universe has occurred — instead of linking all the films together, the Dark Universe will simply be an umbrella term for the standalone films based on their classic monsters, which in my opinion is a lot more feasible.
Secondly, the DC Comics Universe, in response to the MCU, was rushed beyond reason. When comparing the two, both started with an average film, but to this day, the DCEU still does not have an origin film as well loved and effective as Iron Man. The MCU, because it had never been done before, took their time to establish the main characters in their universe, who each had at least one movie for fans to get familiar. In contrast, the DCEU only released the Superman flick Man of Steel, before having a crossover event with Batman, which meant that film had to not only be a film within its own right, but also had to act as an introduction to one of the biggest comic characters ever created. This caused it to be critically panned, as was this film’s spiritual-sequel, Justice League, which failed to learn from the former’s mistakes, and introduced 3 new characters in the film, without already establishing them in origin films. At present, it seems that the DC Universe is in disarray, with actors leaving and reboots already happening. What films they are having success with, such as Wonder Woman and Joker, will follow the Dark Universe notes and will not be linked, instead acting as individual movies. Again, this may prove to be a smart decision, as it means they can focus on the character at hand.
A rather worrying recent trend that has started to emerge is the meddling of movie executives whilst a film is being made, which can completely change the outcome of that film. This could be due to their own preferences, the marketability of the project, external circumstances (such as a competing film performing well), etc. The problem with this interference is that usually, it is to the detriment of the project.
There are countless recent examples to go through, but there is one that always comes to mind — the 2015 Fantastic Four Reboot. The director, Josh Trank, had recently released his breakout hit, Chronicle, to a good reception. That was a young superhero story, as this film was also lined up, and he had a bigger budget and source material to utilise. It was all set up so perfectly, so why did it receive some of the lowest comic book movie critic scores of all time? According to Trank, it was due to the severe meddling Fox Studios did, including rejecting his idea of having two black lead characters, and changing the overall style of the movie into a generic action romp, instead of a nerdy coming-of-age story. Either way, this mismatch of styles led to a disjointed project.
Audiences crave originality, in allowing the artiste to express themselves and put their spin on something which has already been established. So much so, that if there is a good reason to change the source material, such as changing the fate of an important character, fans of the original will accept it. The problem with social media is that it allows the vocal minority of cynics to trash talk trailers, which has caused studios in the past to make changes to the movie to remedy their grievance. However, by not allowing the director to do what they want, it completely negates the decision to appoint that person. Hiring a director with a specific style to make a generic, by-the-numbers film is a harmful trend which will continue unless a studio allows the director to fully realise their vision. The success of Thor Ragnarok, and Disney allowing Taiki Waititi to apply his style to a blockbuster, will hopefully stop this.
Let’s imagine a movie like a pie. Say the pie has been shaped just right, and is just about ready to go in the oven. However, the owner of this pie business decides they want to reshape the pie because they believe it will cook better in the oven. Nobody in the bakery can see the pie being reshaped, as it is occurring in another room. Eventually, the pie comes out the oven, and it has fallen to pieces. The worker brings the pie out, in the view of the customers, and people are shocked to see that it is in pieces. When the customers try it, although it tastes pretty good, the actual integrity of the pie is not there, and therefore they tell their friends not to go to the pie business. This causes the business to not do too well, and the blame is put on the worker, even though their original pie would have potentially worked, and the pie business owner blames the worker for the loss of business, even though their meddling caused the problem. Whilst I may have made you hungry, I have also illustrated a valuable point — too many bakers, and the whole thing falls apart.
With the rise in budgets for movies, not only in their creation but also in their marketing, it was obvious that cinemas would begin to increase their prices gradually to adjust. There are also a lot more “luxury” cinemas nowadays, were the foot space offered to customers comes at the detriment of the amount of seats facing the screen. Therefore, to make up for this loss of income, both the ticket prices and refreshments have been bumped up. In 2000, the average ticket price in the UK was £4.40, but with the introduction of Imax and 3D screenings, the 2019 average was £7.11. Whilst this may not seem like such a big difference, this is balanced out by independent, community ran cinemas, which offer low prices through community donations and volunteers, such as the Plaza Cinema in Crosby, Liverpool.
In the past, cinemas were used as a cheap form of entertainment on a weekend, and people did not care what movie they saw, as the prices were that cheap, they did not feel the effects of it on their purse. Nowadays, as cinema showings are more and more expensive, it has become less of a regular occurrence, and is instead a treat. Although there have been attempts made to offer deals on tickets, such as through “Silver Screenings” and the Meerkat Movies app, this may be too little, too late. People would rather stick on a mediocre film on their preferred streaming service, than support a film being shown at their local Odeon with similar reviews.
If you asked any person below a certain age what is the biggest threat to the movie industry, most would point to the market of streaming services on the rise. In particular, we are looking at the established brands, such as Netflix and Amazon Prime. Whilst these companies are currently struggling to make many must-see films to pull audiences out of their local cinema, bar the Irishman, it is the high quality of television shows they create and the quantity at which they can release original content that is the threat. Some of the highest rated TV shows, whether continuing or finished, are found on Netflix, such as Breaking Bad and Stranger Things. In one study, it was found that in 2018, Netflix put out 15,000 hours of original content, which equates to 9 full weeks, from over 850 titles, whilst UK cinemas showed 916 films in the same year — this does not even bring into account the non-original content that streaming services own the rights to. Whilst quantity does not always equal quality, there is such a variety of shows and films to watch, any type of viewer will be happy. Plus, viewers can always go back and re-watch a film whenever they want, whereas a cinema go-er would have to wait and pay extra for the DVD.
Just like how everyone is rushing to create a franchise, there are now a plethora of streaming services to choose from. Disney+, a recently launched service which offers films from Marvel, Disney, Pixar and Star Wars, is clearly popular with the general public, having just under a third of Netflix’s members in a month, and with it already lining up original TV shows and certain original films pulled from cinemas, it will most certainly continue to grow. HBO Max, on the other hand, has every one of HBO’s acclaimed TV shows, 100s of films from Warner Brothers Pictures, and has also managed to get every Friends episode and a reunion special, as well as the Coveted Snyder Cut of Justice League, as mentioned earlier. Clearly, Hollywood filmmakers and actors now respect the smaller screen.
It reminds me of a story I read a few years ago about the Coen Brothers. At the Cannes Film Festival in 2015, Joel Coen stated that in his mind, nothing came close to watching a film in a proper cinema, and that cinema still has “something special”. His brother, Ethan Coen, also said he doesn’t watch TV, and hasn’t watched one in decades. However, in 2018, they both seemingly changed their stance, penning a mini-series, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”, for Netflix. Is this due to the money offered, or have they actually changed their mind on the internet streaming landscape?
Ultimately, it is a mix of these reasons as to why cinema is in decline. Existing franchises are performing well, so studios try a new idea to set up a exciting set of films. However, these films perform poorly, because cinema tickets are too pricey due to the high budget flicks that are a part of the existing franchises. When these films perform poorly, new ideas are rejected, and instead studios turn to existing source material, such as books, to start a new franchise. They may even try to reboot existing franchises which are faltering. This will lead them to interfere when the films are created, trying to avoid why they failed in the first place, but eventually causes them to fail. Then, the cycle begins yet again.
I bet you are wondering — but what about streaming services in this cycle? Well, let us look at the recent film — Trolls: World Tour. Due to recent events, the film skipped cinematic release and was instead available to rent online, which led it to be more successful than its predecessor. The NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell stated that from now on, they would put their films on streaming services at the same time as in theatres. This caused AMC Theatres to say it would no longer show films from Universal — if you don’t know who AMC Theatres are, they are the largest cinema circuit in the world, with over 1,000 cinemas worldwide, including Odeon in the UK. Whether due to the Coronavirus or not, two Universal films have now had their release dates delayed. However, with a recent survey suggesting 70% of people would prefer to watch new releases at home rather than the cinema, NBCUniversal may have a point, and it may be the first in a chain of dominos to fall, eventually toppling the last — the cinematic experience.