The Coming Revolution

So, I've been musing a lot more on the topic of my last blog post: The lack of pushing narrative boundaries in games, and the more I think about it, the more I realize it reflects my general lack of satisfaction with most venues of the entertainment industry.

Seth Godin, in his blog, talks a lot about how the traditional ideas behind marketing don't work anymore. Spam, junk mail, and the like have become so intrusive, and privacy has become so scarce that in order to effectively market to someone, you must have their permission. (He even coined the phrase “Permission Marketing”) Likewise, he talks a lot about the benefits of having a product, service, or some other identifying characteristic that is worth talking about.

I know, of course, that railing against Hollywood and the derivative nature of most films isn't worth your time, but I'm starting to think that the entire system is broken.

Movies are expensive. They need to gross about three times as much as they cost to make in order to be a good investment. If I'm going to sink over a hundred million dollars into a movie (not in any way unreasonable), unless it grosses at least three hundred million dollars, I'm losing money. If it grosses only one hundred million, I've lost two hundred million dollars. It's hard to imagine a studio surviving that, and even if they did, anyone and everyone involved with the decision is going to get the axe.

Add in to this fact that I could pay 10 dollars for a movie ticket, another 10-15 for dinner, double that plus a babysitter if I'm a couple with kids, and I'm paying $60 to see a movie (and that assumes 10 for the ticket, which we all know is pretty generous). If I want to see “Up in the Air”, am I going to pay $60? Or am I going to wait 6 months, and get it from my netflix account for virtually free?

The best possible motivation for actually going to a movie theater is when it provides something you won't be able to get at home: spectacle. And with the advent of 3d TVs, that's under fire too. (This is not to say that movies in 3d are the only kind of spectacle, but for the moment, it's an easily identified one)

But all of this leads to a system in which studios need to be constantly trolling for the next huge smash hit, to pay for all of the movies they make that aren't smash hits. If you're constantly looking for the next big thing, and know that a wrong decision could cost you your job at the drop of a hat, which movie are you going to make? Something that's weird and new and edgy? Or something with an established IP that you know is going to bring in a decent number of people?

To some degree, I know that this is the way that it must work. Indie projects (be they games, music, movies, or any other kind of entertainment) are indie because they enjoy such a small market share. With money comes responsibility, and responsibility changes people. But I can't help but look at what's coming out recently, and go “Really? This is the most original stuff that Hollywood has to offer?”

Simply put, I think a crash is coming, and I, for one, welcome it. Just like Seth Godin proposes that the current paradigm of marketing (yes, I just legitimate used the word paradigm, pardon me while I punch myself in the face) is dying, I wholeheartedly embrace the (hopefully) coming breakdown and rebuild in the way movies are made and distributed. Hopefully whatever rises from the ashes is something that rewards creativity more than our current system.

Now if only we could push the game industry to the same place...


emily said...

I think you have an interesting point, but I will take issue with one thing -- 3D TV will not replace the spectacle of movie-going. 3D as a technology in general may be what Hollywood clings to, but are people going to buy a 3D TV for...how many movies are made in 3D, even considering the recent glut?

You spoke to spectacle, but almost wrote it off as irrelevant. It is not. For example, there is also a distinct difference between seeing a film on the big screen and at home. Compare a 70mm print of Lawrence of Arabia and watching it on a small screen - sure, the plot holds up, but in that particular case you're not giving the cinematography the respect it deserves! You do, honestly, have a different experience watching a film on the screen (assuming you're sitting the right distance from the screen! - 1.5 screen heights btw)

If the system IS broken, though, how do you explain Pixar? Up? Up in the Air for that matter... To be fair too, most industries are looking for the next big thing (Books, eBooks, Computers) so to take Hollywood to task for that I think isn't seeing the root of the problem. Even in the ye olden days of filmmaking, there was a lot of drek, but when they were producing massive amounts of films in a year there was less of a loss, but the studio system helped that (and, honestly, helped jobs).

Phew. Anyway, sorry about the ramble, but I suppose what I'm curious about is what exactly you'd propose as a solution? You've asked some good questions, but... what's the follow up? :)

Brian 'Psychochild' Green said...

I found this post via someone sharing it on Google Reader. It was too interesting not to comment on.

I read an article a little while ago about how Hollywood was changing based on the movie District 9. (Can't remember the original article, sadly. But, it's a great movie, highly recommended.) They talked about how the movie showed how things could be done: they didn't use any big-name actors, it had a fairly modest budget, it didn't rely on previous IP, it had a smart viral marketing campaign, etc. The only real "big name" that was on the project was Peter Jackson, and the article said that the benefit of having him involved was that he could help guide the limited use of CGI to it's most potent effect. According to this article, the future of movies was to duplicate this success. (This conveniently ignores the fact that Peter Jackson got his CGI chops from a very big-budget film, so those are still useful in that way.)

You wrote:
But I can't help but look at what's coming out recently, and go “Really? This is the most original stuff that Hollywood has to offer?”

But, you point out yourself: the point isn't to be original, it's to make money. And, yeah, most of this stuff is probably the best opportunity to make money. Original stuff doesn't always sell well. One problem, especially in game development, is that new stuff goes against what a lot of people say they want to see in a game, namely "polish". I wrote about this on my blog a while ago (http://www.psychochild.org/?p=892). Basically, if you look at the company who has done the best job of polish, you'll see that their games are really not original or innovative. Well-done, sure, but they're usually heavily inspired by other games.

As an indie game developer, I'd love to see the current systems dominating entertainment go away and make room for original, innovative stuff. But, the real root cause is that the audience keeps buying it. As you point out, what's the point in paying so much money to go to the theater when you can rent the movie or get it on Netflix. In my mind, that means that the movie theater is in danger, not the system that makes the movies. Of course, this might have an effect on the business model for movies, so perhaps we'll see some changes down the line, but not immediately....

Some thoughts from a fellow artist.

William said...

Emily -
It's true, I did kind of downplay the role of spectacle in movie going. That was more of a personal choice, and less of an intentional editorial comment.

I tend to not value spectacle too highly in my movie going experience, but I think there's still a lot to be said for it. (I did shell out almost twenty bucks to see Avatar, and have driven all the way out to Santa Monica at midnight, because I wanted to see Nausicaa on the big screen) I just think that that's going to increasingly be the motivation to see films, because "I'd like to see this the moment it comes out" and "It's something to do" are going to pale compared to its relative expense.

I'd be really interested to hear someone's thoughts on what this might do to leisure time in general, if people are staying in more, and getting out less, but I know I'm not qualified to comment much on sociological trends.

Also, whether or not I'm saying the system is broken, depends on your definition of broken, I suppose. If I had to crystallize my opinion in 15 words or less, I'd say "The movie industry, like all entertainment, does not reward risk taking, and therefore discourages originality." Pixar, while awesome, is the exception.

The "solution", if it must be phrased that way, I think, is the try and stop the death spiral of "we need a hugely profitable blockbuster to fund all the rest of the stuff we turn out this year". If movie budgets get reigned in, and Indie stuff comes to the forefront, then suddenly, turning a mild profit on a film is no longer "not good enough".

Ay yi yi. That turned out the be longer than I expected.

William said...

Brian - Thanks for commenting!

I think the trick here, is that the movie theater issue (what I was talking about re: spectacle earlier) is going to mean that "the audience" as you put it, is going to stop buying a lot of stuff, which is going to hurt for a while, but eventually open the door to other ways of doing things.

Your comments about polish, particularly in relation to Blizzard, are interesting, but I'm not sure they're as diametrically opposed as you say. Blizzard is the master of polish, to be sure, but that's pretty much all they do. They've made an entire company out of "We are going to choose to do a very small number of things exceptionally well". Have you ever heard of an RTS besides Starcraft that was legitimately balanced for rigorous competitive multiplayer play? "The Balanced RTS" is almost exclusively the purview of Blizzard.

However, to beat another dead horse: Take Braid. A pretty innovative game, that was also really solid on all the non-essentials (music, art, etc.)

The problem is that polish basically means money, the lack of which is arguably the defining "indie" characteristic. Braid had polish, but that's because Jonathan Blow personally bankrolled the game, to the tune of more than a million dollars.

Really though, part of the issue is that we say "big budget" and "indie" when what we really mean, I think, are "derivative" and "innovative". The two terms are just so co-morbid, that it's hard to tell the difference.

Again, risk taking is the heart of the problem. If I have $60,000, I might spend it on a crazy new idea that has a decent chance of imploding, but if I have $20 million, and the fate of my entire company, I'm gonna want to turn out something safer. Unfortunately, the game industry is still going fairly strong, and nothing seems to be coming to discourage these kinds of business practices. I guess it's the fate of all new media, until the industry levels out a bit more.

emily said...

I tend to not value spectacle too highly in my movie going experience, but I think there's still a lot to be said for it. (I did shell out almost twenty bucks to see Avatar, and have driven all the way out to Santa Monica at midnight, because I wanted to see Nausicaa on the big screen) I just think that that's going to increasingly be the motivation to see films, because "I'd like to see this the moment it comes out" and "It's something to do" are going to pale compared to its relative expense.

BUT it's not about spectacle, really, it's about the experience. Films look different on the big screen, you react differently with an audience (particularly with comedies, but honestly with any film) and you simply don't get that experience in your living room. Even with a big television, you don't get that experience.

I mean, I'm the kind of person that goes out of my way to see films that I love on the big screen when I can (particularly ones that I would have never gotten the chance to -- Citizen Kane, Lawrence of Arabia, White Christmas) because it really does make a difference.

Also, Pixar aren't the only people making a commitment to story -- and to be fair, if you're not seeing the film in the theatre, you're not helping those indie artists that you argue should get more exposure :P -- This is one of the major problems with Serenity (the Firefly movie) -- people didn't see the importance of going to see it on opening weekend (ie. important in that it would help preserve the franchise) and so it made an abysmal $10 mil. Ergo no sequel, and the fans were angry -- but the studio looks at that money and doesn't see that there are tons of fans - so why should they make a sequel, if the fans didn't show up for the film? :)


William said...

I think part of the disconnect here is that we're operating under different definitions of spectacle. I realize, after the fact, that when I've used it in this article, it sounds pejorative, which is not how it's intended.

I would agree that there is something fundamentally different about seeing a film in a theater, but I think electronics manufacturers are aggressively trying to co-opt that feeling, and with the price of movie tickets where it is, the poor imitation offered by your home theater is starting to look more and more appealing, particularly for films where the big screen experience is less important ("Up in the Air", for example).

I'm not trying to maintain that it doesn't make a difference, even for "Up in the Air", but I am trying to maintain that the difference will get smaller and smaller as time goes on, and movie tickets show no sign of going down in price.

Your point about "Serenity", unfortunately, is a huge part of the problem, I think. Unless people turn out for openings (because if a movie doesn't open well, theaters turn it over really fast), it's hard for indie stuff to catch on.

Really though, my reaction to this point is more of the same. Thinking, "Man... this system is kinda broken." There's gotta be a way where we can more directly connect films with their fans, as another part of trimming film budgets to try and smooth out the boom and bust cycle.

Also, I know very little about how film distribution works, and how money changes hands with rights to show vs. actual prints, but I wonder if there isn't a business to be made out of cashing in on the movie-going experience moreso even than the movie being shown. I'm sure lots of small scale theaters do this all the time. I'm a big fan of the Aero in downtown Santa Monica, but I feel like you could take it even farther: Fancy Chairs, Fancy Food, and putting as much emphasis as possible on the communal aspect. This is highly personal, but I feel like I would be more likely to pay $25 (a conservative estimate for a first run movie with concessions) if I got to sit in a recliner, eat some decent food, and get a lot of other itches scratched that are ancillary to the movie going experience.

Maybe that's just me though.