Earlier this week Steven Spielberg and George Lucas spoke at the opening of a new media centre at the University of Southern California. While speaking to students at USC, Spielberg made the following claim:
There’s going to be an implosion where three or four or maybe even a half-dozen megabudget movies are going to go crashing into the ground, and that’s going to change the paradigm
They went on to say:
I think eventually the Lincolns will go away and they’re going to be on television,” Lucas said. “As mine almost was,” Spielberg interjected. “This close — ask HBO — this close.”
“We’re talking Lincoln and Red Tails — we barely got them into theaters. You’re talking about Steven Spielberg and George Lucas can’t get their movie into a theater,” Lucas said.
Whilst reading this my irony meter went into overdrive. Let me explain why.
Let us take a trip back in time to the 1970s. American cinema creatively was thriving. Auteurs like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman and Roman Polanski were all making great films that made Hollywood the place to be both commercially and creatively.
However, the failure of Heaven’s Gate by Michael Camino meant that these great auteurs were given less control as studios looked to a different type of film with less financial risk involved.
Then in 1975 along came a film called Jaws. Not only was it a great film, it was a film with that was easy to sell and audiences loved it. Later in 1977 a film called Star Wars cemented the Hollywood studios new direction. “Event” movies, which came to be known as “blockbusters” set up a trend known as “Want. See.” That is, if people wanted space battles, time traveling cars, dinosaurs or futuristic robots they got them. Largely the landscape for big budget projects has remained unchanged since.
So now Spielberg and Lucas, two of the directors who have benefited most from blockbuster cinema in the past forty years are complaining about that very model. Having seen off the threat of home video, they now seem resigned to the fact that the combination of the latest technology and changing viewing habits will see off whatever grand vision they have for their next project.
The reality is that Red Tails was not well received by audiences or movie-goers; and Lincoln was released into the cinema and performed pretty well. It is also unfair of them to assume that because of their previous successes they should find it easy to persuade studios to back every single project they can come up with.
Yes, studios can get it wrong, but then so too can directors. If the history of cinema shows us anything, it is that the arrogance of both studios and directors knows no bounds.
As a way of disproving Spielberg and Lucas’ narrative that the movie industry is about to implode I decided to find some information about how cinema habits are changing over the past decade.
This very informative and far-reaching report by the MPAA provided a lot of the answers I was looking for. On page 9 it shows the number of admissions in the USA has gone down slightly over the past ten years (by about 10%). Box office revenue has also gone down in real terms. Adjusted for inflation (which the report does not do), it was $11.4 billion is 2003, compared with $10.8 billion in 2012, a drop of 5%.
Finally the number of theatrical releases in the U.S. is shown on page 20. Contrary to what Spielberg says, this does not show a decrease in the number of movies being released at the cinema. In 2003, it was 455, and now it has pretty consistently increased over the past decade to 677 last year. An increase of 49%.
This data suggests a smaller number of cinema-goers are seeing a wider range of movies compared with ten years ago. So far from it being harder for movies to get into cinemas, it’s actually easier for a young filmmaker to get their film into a theater than it was ten years ago. This probably goes against the personal experience of Lucas and Spielberg but that should not suggest it will be the same for the audience they were speaking to.
Finally their claim that three of four blockbusters will come crashing down seems to have no grounding in reality. Yes, high profile movies like John Carter catch the headlines every so often. However, even it made $282 million at the box office, which means after DVD sales and so on it will not lose money. Mark Kermode has a chapter in his latest book, The Good, The Bad and The Multiplex entitled “Why Blockbusters Should Be Better” where he makes the case that “event” films will always make their money back “no matter how awful they might be”.
So, Spielberg and Lucas, still great at making dramatic statements. It’s just a pity this one is about as believable as Kingdom of the Crystal Skull‘s fridge.