“Why doesn’t Hollywood have any new ideas?”
It’s a question you often hear when covering the movie industry, and it’s hard to fault the logic behind it. Last year, you had to go all the way down to number 13 on the North American box office chart to find a non-sequel, non-franchise, non-remake movie on the list of the year’s top-grossing movies (Pixar’s Coco, which was wonderful). In terms of all-time box office, only two out of the top 10 and three out of the top 20 fall into that category.
It’s tempting to think that the movie industry is just out of ideas, or struggling to come up with them, but the truth is they just don’t seem to need them that much. They certainly don’t invest in them. The business has shifted, to brands, and franchises, and the degree to which it has done so would shock just about anyone who doesn’t cover the business for a living.
Perhaps no one has done as good and thorough a job explaining both what the modern, brand-based, “franchise era” of movie making looks like, and how it came about, than the Wall Street Journal‘s Ben Fritz. His new book, The Big Picture: The Fight For The Future Of Movies, chronicles this momentous shift in the way movie studios make movies that has happened in the past four or five years.
For one thing, the profit expectations of the companies bankrolling the studios underlying every decision have changed. “Until the past few years, companies used to think something like 10 percent was a healthy profit margin for the movie business,” Fritz tells us. “You couldn’t really do better than that. And the other thing they thought, it was never gonna be stable. Disney has completely upended that. Disney is making profits, in its film studio alone, with a margin of close to 30 percent recently. And they’ve been doing that consistently.”
And they do it with big brands — Star Wars, Marvel.
“Approximately 40% of the box office [41%, as of this writing] so far this year is five movies. It’s Avengers, Black Panther, Jumanji, Ready Player One, and A Quiet Place,” Fritz says. “That means only 60% of the box office is available for every other film, except those five.”
Franchises are not only seen as safer bets that end up absorbing the majority of a studio’s resources, they offer a built-in business plan. A superhero movie isn’t just a movie, it’s a five-year plan.
In the past, when studios were only expected to make 10 percent, give or take, they would bankroll bets on movies based on the understanding that the person running the studio was competent at making those bets. To contrast the current era to the way it was done in the past, Fritz utilized the treasure trove of information uncovered in the Sony hack, which allowed him to explore the inner workings of a studio — which are normally intensely secretive — in a way that’s never been possible before.
“The business plan of Sony was Amy Pascal,” Fritz says. “She was their movie business plan — her relationships with talent. Her taste, those were the movies they made.”
These days, studio heads are much more likely to be “brand managers” with MBAs than fast-talking, cigar chomping (proverbially) movie people like Pascal. Love superhero movies or hate them, Fritz’ scholarship is key for a full understanding of what movies get made now and why, so we kept talking.