The Ankler Interview: Hollywood Is Dying And Not Even Star Wars Can Save It

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Richard Rushfield is a maverick.

He worked for Michael Dukakis, which was enough to scare him straight and cure him of politics. So he started writing for a living. Rushfield carved out a career as a journalist covering Hollywood for Vanity Fair and Arena and the Los Angeles Times. He wrote a novel and a memoir about being at Hampshire College in the ’80s.

And after bouncing around Hollywood journalism for a couple decades, a few months ago he started up an email newsletter, called The Ankler.

I cannot overstate how awesome it is.

The Ankler gives you the smartest, most transparent industry news and analysis anywhere in Hollywood. It’s paid for by subscribers, so there’s no log-rolling or favor-trading with the studios. Rushfield gives you the straight dope and he does it with intelligence and flair. If you want to know what’s happening in the entertainment industry, you simply have to read it. (I highly recommend subscribing. Just head on over here.)

Rushfield also had the good fortune to start The Ankler right at the moment that Hollywood started to come unspooled: In the last few months we’ve had the Worst Summer Movies Ever, a major multinational corporation trying to get rich off of the “Poop” emoji, and, of course, Harvey Weinstein. It is, as another Maverick once said, a target-rich environment.

I talked with Rushfield over email about all of this—plus Star Wars and Marvel and much else.

JVL

Jonathan V. Last: So . . . Harvey Weinstein?

You’ve been covering this story in >The Ankler

for weeks now, because the Harvey exposé is really just the biggest boulder in a landslide of sexual misconduct stories in the film universe in recent weeks. And you’ve consistently pointed out that (1) This sort of thing has been going on for forever and (2) It’s great that the mandarins of the film industry are finally being called into account.

But the other point you’ve been making is that if the entertainment industry doesn’t set up some limits on culpability, where anyone who ever saw anything and didn’t risk their careers to crank up the klaxon gets driven out of town, Hollywood is going to look like that >empty-London sequence

in 28 Days Later.

If you were the Emperor of Los Angeles, what sort of Truth and Reconciliation program would you set up and how would it work?

Richard Rushfield: Well, the problem is, everyone who works here—certainly anyone who has ever worked on a set or in the executive suites of this industry, or even anyone who say, works at a restaurant if you want to get down to it, has seen some monstrous behavior. Not necessarily Weinstein-level serial criminality, but all sorts of terrible things. At one of the town's very major talent agencies, for instance, until recently the common knowledge among assistants was that the only way to become a full-ranking agent yourself was to have your boss assault you. At which point you could bring the red mark on your forehead where the stapler hit you to the head of your section and say, it's time for me to get on a desk.

For a lot of jobs, abetting that behavior has been part of the job requirement. So if we're going to go beyond blaming the offenders to—and this is where the furor is drifting to—blaming anyone who ever knew, or saw, or lent a hand, then empty-London is our fate.

My half-joking proposal starts with accepting that this entire industry has been built to abet monstrous behavior from the little kings who run it, and supposing that people in the past should have flushed their careers down the toilet in order to make small stands that wouldn’t realistically have changed anything, is a big ask.

So I suggest we convene this Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and ask everyone in Hollywood to confess their sins, and reveal what they've endured. Those who have committed actual crimes, like Harvey Weinstein, should be bundled off to the authorities. But the rest of us can all say: We lived through 100 years of a despotic regime. We all did what we had to do to survive, but that's over now, so let's turn the page with the expectation that Hollywood must behave itself on say, the level we expect the pharmaceuticals or petroleum industries to conform to.

JVL: From the outside, it looks like Hollywood is undergoing four or five simultaneous crises: there’s the systemic sexual misconduct; there’s the Worst Summer Box Office Ever; there’s the precarious position of the theatrical release and the theater experience; and there’s the rise of streaming and Silicon Valley’s incursion into the entertainment business.

It’s like the industry version of a geostorm.

Is it really as bad as all that? Or is this one of those moments where the situation isn’t so dire, that the wheels always look like they’re falling off the cart, but never do?

RR: I'd say it is as bad as all that, for the reasons you describe, which all go back to: the movie industry, in particular, has lost the plot. It's lost sight of the reasons why people go to the movies. It's been so focused on "What movies can you market?"—which is generally shorthand for “What movies will people just show up for without you having convince them that they actually should?”

In particular, Hollywood has lost sight of the way people under 30—the ones who used to be the core audience—consume entertainment and what sort of experience they are looking for.

The tone for the past five years or so has very much reminded me of the mood you'd get around newsrooms 15 years ago, when if newspaper people were told that no one under 40 was reading the papers, they'd just harumph that “It's about time someone explained to those whippersnappers how great newspapers actually are!” And I can see this all working out for the studios similar to how losing a couple generations of readers worked out for newspapers.

The studio upper echelons are controlled more or less by the same little club of executives who have run the movie studios since the mid-’90s, and more and more lately you see this haunted look in their eyes as they realize that the audience is no longer with them. “There arose up a new king over Egypt, which knew not Joseph.”

The only real king of Hollywood is the popcorn eaters we all work for and movies have ceased to be the first, second, or even third cultural force in their lives.

Given that, every other problem—changing technology, financing issues, the insane cost of making and marketing films—gets exacerbated. And in times of trouble, people fall back on what they know, which in this case is: bludgeon them over the head with something they've heard of and brute-force your way to an opening weekend. That kind of thinking has produced a world where it's now half a billion dollars to make and market some of these movies. Every one of these things can be a half a billion dollar bet on something you have no idea how it will turn out. So you go, bigger, safer, more predictable. Which makes the movies more irrelevant to people. And makes the cycle continue, infinitely.

JVL: What movie’s performance has scared people in the industry the most over the last few years? When you read the trades, there’s always a phalanx of people ready to wave away this or that failure, but has there been any movie that has made people really worry about the business?

RR: I would say we're kind of past that at this point. In the recent years, you'd have one great, crowd-pleasing film that bombs that makes people say, "Gee, if people won't even come out to see that, we're all in trouble." But this year, all the big bombs were ones you could see failing a thousand miles away, without the least question about why no one turned out for it.

That paradigm is actually reversed this year. Traditionally, you've got one big horrible expensive disaster every year—the $300 million how-did-this-happen trainwreck that becomes the nexus for months of schadenfreude. The John Carter of Mars/Howard the Duck slot.

But this year you had four of those—King Arthur, The Mummy, The Dark Tower, and now Geostorm. And a whole bunch of way-underperformers such as Alien Covenant.

Disney has led the way into this era of Big IP—the idea that it's so expensive to make a movie that if you start out with a property that doesn't have built-in, universal name recognition, you're doomed. (The parallels with last year's presidential race suggest themselves).

The problems are: (1) There's only so many universally beloved-comic book heroes and sci-fi franchises to go around; (2) If you don't have your hands on any of those, you still have to make movies; and (3) As Hollywood is learning, a terrific name, even one with 1,500 years of built-in awareness like Arthur Pendragon, doesn't necessarily mean a good movie.

Between all this, the studios are waking up to the fact that it's getting harder to wrench people away from their Netflix and into the theaters, and somehow Hollywood seems to be forgetting how to do that.

JVL: Let’s focus for a minute on the exhibition side of the business. I’m not sure if Silicon Valley poses an existential threat to Hollywood (I think it does not, but tell me if I’m wrong). But it sure looks like it poses an existential threat to the theatrical experience. Silicon Valley’s ultimate goal seems to be to push all viewing either into the home or onto your phone with the smallest possible window for theatrical release. And preferably no window at all.

Are the studios eventually going to go along with this? If so, will it be catastrophic for the business? Did the studios learn anything from the music industry’s encounter with the internet?

RR: To take the last part of that first: no, the studios did not learn a thing from the music industry's near-extinction encounter with the internet. Proof of this is that today, in 2017, the most successful of the studios—Disney—is just breaking ground on its digital plan, and still hasn't wrestled with the big details of it. The other studios haven't even gone that far.

I think you are basically right that closing the theatrical window, so that movies are available at home and in the theaters at the same time will not be good for the studios.

I don't think it will be death; there will still be people who want to get out of the house, meet up with friends, etc, and have social reasons for going to movies, but they'll be giving many other a good reason not to put on shoes and shell out $100 bucks. The studios are suffering so much that if even 20 percent of the audience decides to watch at home, that's a big hit to an already struggling business.

Problem is fiscally, over the past five years or so, as the home viewing choices have exploded, the video-on-demand pie hasn't grown. People already have too many things to watch at home. If we close the theatrical window, we're going to get them out of the habit of going to the movie theaters. And once we've done that, as with newspaper reading, there's no going back.

For me, there's a line between movies and TV shows that matters even more to the future of studios than the direct financial questions; that's the sense of a new movie being an important cultural event in a way a new TV show premiere (with a very few exceptions) is not.

To boil this down, movies for me are about space. They are relatively condensed experiences—just a couple hours—but heightened (when they are good) by the intense craftsmanship that goes into every moment.

That's why you can see your favorite films a hundred times and still find something new, why people watch them over and over even when they can recite the dialogue by heart. There's this heightened reality that makes films special and begs to be seen in the best possible circumstances.

Television shows (dramas in particular) are about time—about building a relationship with the characters over the course of years. Game of Thrones didn't become a vital experience in the minds of its viewers until the second or third season, after we'd spent 15 or 20 hours with the characters. That's why in the great shows, the relationship with the characters grows over the years in a way that it might not if you were going to the theaters to see The Godfather Part 27.

Anyhow, there's something about these Netflix movies every week that just radiates, non-special, non-heightened experience. That telegraphs You are not going to watch this fifty times.

Whereas holding out the hope that this is what you're in store for at the theater is what movies are about. The more they become just another thing that's on your TV, the more that line gets blurred, the more movies lose the space reserved for them culturally.

A good deal of which, I fear, has already been squandered and lost.

JVL: The one thing Hollywood clearly has learned is the value of intellectual property. Movie snobs like us like to sneer at this—“Oh lovely. Another movie about a board game.”—but as a business proposition it’s not clear that Hollywood is entirely wrong about this.

Or maybe they are entirely wrong and IP mania is a plague? What are your thoughts?

RR: There are good IP-based films and bad ones. If you look at the top films of all time you've got Gone with the Wind, Sound of Music, Jaws, Doctor Zhivago, The Exorcist, Mary Poppins—to name a few. All of them based on existing IP.

These days, you've got something like the new Jumanji, which is not just outside intellectual property, but a reboot of a movie based on outside intellectual property. By all rights, it should be dismal. But they've come up with a clever twist on the concept and the buzz is that it’s testing really well. (We shall see!) So who knows, maybe it will be fantastic.

This current run of superhero films has certainly gone farther than anyone imagined it would, but Marvel keeps finding ways to break their own mold and has shown an amazing awareness of the pitfalls of their genre. It can't go on forever, but then, there are no more “forevers” in Hollywood.

So the problem is, just as IP-based films can be good, so can non-IP based films, and Hollywood has all but forgotten how to develop and market those. There's a world of ideas and experiences that haven't already been turned into comic books or board games or Stephen King novels that are now off the table. Hollywood is addicted to these giant bets on these giant properties and the middle of filmmaking is evaporating and that cannot be good in the long run.

JVL: And speaking of manias, has the mania for Cinematic Universes ended as suddenly as it began? Everyone wanted to be Marvel, but now no one wants to be the Dark Universe and even the middling economics of the Monsterverse are looking more like a best-case scenario for something like the >Hasbro Cinematic Universe.

RR: I feel like the Universe talk was bluster and bravado more than it was a reality most of the time. Before you can make 15 movies, after all, you have to make two or three successfully, and crossing that bar is very tough, and takes a good decade to pull off, if you even can. The only true Universe, so far, has been Marvel, with DC kinda lurching halfway there. Star Wars has been a string of sequels about the Blood of Anakin, with, so far, one little stand-alone movie (which grossed about half of what The Force Awakens did).

Having a "Universe" means you can crank out a new installment out every year—or more—instead of having to wait two to three years, which is probably the minimum gestation period for new episodes along a single plotline (although the Fast and Furious movies challenge that).

So if you're running a studio, what's not to like about a Universe? You can count on this thing to give you one big hit every year, with connected characters keeping the toy and branded diaper lines alive. Who wouldn't want a Universe! And if you can look at Dark Tower, or Universal monsters and draw a line around them and call that a Universe, all the better.

An important consideration: The lifespan of a typical studio chief is about five years these days. So they put a "Universe" into the pipeline, and they're a genius with this visionary plan to save the studio. And make no mistake—one giant, successful franchise film a year can hold up pretty much everything else. But you also know that while you might be there to see the first, or maybe (if you're very lucky) second installment, when it crumbles and the world realizes what a half-baked attempt this was, you'll be long gone and the big write down will happen on someone else's watch.

JVL: To my mind, there’s a difference between a franchise (Lethal Weapon) and a cinematic Universe (the Marvel movies). What no one seems to have noticed is that the most important franchise in the history of movies—Star Wars—is slowly evolving into a cinematic Universe, where instead of telling one long, meandering story, we have a series of movies many of which exist more or less independently of one another.

Star Wars is the closest thing Hollywood has ever had to a sure-thing. It’s a printing press for money. It’s a solid-gold, mortal lock: A pre-sold property that is critic-proof and a recognizable part of the popular culture in every industrialized society on earth and which has—this is the important part—never bombed. Not ever. Star Wars bats a thousand.

How long can this last? The aftertaste left by The Force Awakens combined with the >terrible trailer

for The Last Jedi has left me wondering just how far away we are from a Star Wars movie that bombs. Not “disappoints,” but craters into X-Men: Apocalypse territory, where it’s a critical failure that’s reviled by audiences and loses a little bit of money, too.

Is it possible that Star Wars could ever hollow out and suddenly collapse as a property? And if a Star Wars movie were to bomb, what would the panic be like in the industry?

RR: This is the big question. I think it's possible that one could go terribly wrong. But I think Disney’s strategy is playing it so safe, so much giving the fans exactly what they want, and bringing in the trusted hands to guide it, that the likelihood of seeing one that is just awful is pretty low.

The bigger fear I'd have if I were Disney is that by playing it so safe and stimulating the fanboy needs over and over, the endorphin centers in the audience brain are going to get defibrillated to the point where they no longer respond, and you could see a gradual, regular decline in results.

I saw the new trailer in the theaters and that applause for the Lucasfilm belt-buckle logo coupled with the Luke theme, felt awfully forced to me. (No pun intended) As mentioned, Rogue One made half what Force Awakens did, about a billion worldwide. Is that the floor? Or could it fall further? That's a lot of money, but you certainly wouldn't want to see Star Wars movies regularly making much less than that.

On the other hand, I bounced the idea that the floor would fall out off a friend who's been involved with the Lucasfilm world, who laughed in my face. He laid out for me what the product licensing numbers mean for Disney, reminding me that it came out a few years back that the company was pulling in nearly a billion a year in okaying diapers and toys for Winnie the Pooh, for crying out loud.

The movies, he explained, are more or less an advertisement for this huge product line that's worth more than any of us can comprehend. If no one went to see the new Star Wars movie, it could function entirely as a loss leader for Disney and the venture would still be fantastically successful.

At some point, I've got to believe that people losing interest in the movies will mean they lose interest in the toys, so justice will prevail. Then again, you don't see people lining up for Winnie the Pooh these days, and they're doing just fine.

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Source : http://www.weeklystandard.com/the-ankler-interview-hollywood-is-dying-and-not-even-star-wars-can-save-it/article/2010165

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