December 21, 2013

"If you’re running a Hollywood studio, you may well think there are too many blockbusters."

"But that doesn’t mean there are too many of your blockbusters. You can only control your slate, and you want the other guys to cut back."
Mr. Spielberg, one of the most celebrated in Hollywood history, said that he had trouble finding a distributor for his acclaimed 2012 film “Lincoln,” which almost ended up on cable. And George Lucas, director of the original “Star Wars” franchise, said he had similar problems with “Red Tails,” an action adventure about African-American flying aces.

“You’re talking about Steven Spielberg and George Lucas can’t get their movie into a theater!” Mr. Lucas said this summer at the opening of a new media center at the University of Southern California.
Why are these medicinally historical films considered blockbusters? I know it's because some grotesque amount of money was thrown into them, but why was that done? Because Spielberg and Lucas threw their weight into these projects?

How entitled they feel — how the rich assume they should get richer and richer by dumping vast sums of money into their work! Ironically, the film projects about which they feel so entitled are the ones that purvey their supposedly liberal values, challenge the privilege and entitlement of the rich. Rich other people.

As for the actual non-rich who exist in large enough numbers to make a blockbuster strategy work (when it works), they seem to prefer those stories about boyish adventurers in outer space.
Anita Elberse, a professor at Harvard Business School and author of the recent “Blockbusters: Hit-Making, Risk-Taking, and the Big Business of Entertainment”... that the blockbuster syndrome “turns out to be a winning strategy. It makes sense for the studios to spend disproportionately on a select group of the most likely winners.”...

“The marketplace for entertainment is extremely cluttered,” Professor Elberse said. “When there wasn’t a whole lot of competition, small movies worked, but with so many demands on our time, you really have to convince consumers that they need to see this on the big screen at the same time their friends are seeing it. You need the wow factor. That’s a tough challenge.”


Elise Ronan said...

Having seen Lincoln and Red Tails, they are both superb movies. Alot more entertaining than some horror movies and vampire/lycan/zombie ridiculousness. They are also not about challenging the "rich" per se as opposed to challenging society as a whole in many ways. I am also not so certain they are about "liberal" values as opposed to appropriate values...what it took to end slavery and race discrimination in the armed forces.

I would suspect that the reason Spielberg and Lucas had a hard time getting the movies done is simply a cost benefit approach by the studios. Its actually insulting to the average person if you think about it. The studio heads apparently felt that WE the People were too stupid to go see these movies and understand them, so they didn't want to put the money into making the films. While Hollywood is unhealthy in its attachment to uberliberalism, the bottom line in their business is still profit.Just like anyone else.

As far as Spielberg and Lucas feeling entitled...well that is for a psychiatrist to parse out, but I kinda think that with their past success they know a good script and idea when they see it.

Larry J said...

I never saw "Lincoln" but did watch "Red Tails". It was a bad movie about some good men. The Tuskegee Airmen deserved a better movie. The aerial combat sequences looked like something from a poor video game.

Revenant said...

I believe the point is that "Lincoln" and "Red Tails" had trouble getting in theaters *because* of the obsession with blockbusters, not that those two films were blockbusters themselves.

MathMom said...

Elise Ronan -

While I agree with your points about vampire/zombie/whatever movies being dreck, and studio heads' low opinion of We, the Great Unwashed, I don't trust Hollywood liberals to present history in a factual way, so for the most part I stay away. For example, recently the Left began to try to convince people that Lincoln was a Democrat. Crikey - even Dr. Martin Luther King was a Republican, but that has been shoved way down the memory hole and they will do everything they can to keep it there.

Did the story of how difficult it was to desegregate the military include the fact that Woodrow Wilson was a racist who segregated it, after which it had to be desegregated?

Just curious.

St. George said...

Lincoln was ludicrous--that first scene where the noble negro soldier in the rain quotes the Gettysburg address. The rest? a movie about passing a piece of legislation. Zzzzz.

Ann Althouse said...

"I believe the point is that "Lincoln" and "Red Tails" had trouble getting in theaters *because* of the obsession with blockbusters, not that those two films were blockbusters themselves."

I'd say you are wrong because $100 million was spent making each of those movies. It's not like they were modest-budget art films. They were lavish films promoted in part based on spectacle and action.

traditionalguy said...

Point of order. Both Lincoln and Red Tails were realty based stories about courageous male leadership in time of war.

Since the "Shakespeare in Love" fantasy lightweight picture won the Best Picture Oscar over Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, Hollywood made clear its choice for no more reality based courageous male leadership blockbusters.

Valentine Smith said...

Spielberg should make a film on the passing of the Affordable Care Act. Now THAT would be a backstory worth pushing to the fore.

Hammond X Gritzkofe said...

Samuel Goldwyn: "If you've got a message, send a telegram."

It's the *entertainment* industry.

Chris Lopes said...

I bow to no one in my contempt for Hollywood elitism and the sense of entitlement the entertainment industry has. On this one though, Lucas has a point. He and Spielberg have made billions for the studios and the theater owners. They've proven they know how to make movies people actually want to see. So yes, I expect them to be able to sell good movies to people they've made a lot of money for without too much difficulty.

EMD said...

Technology in any other industry reduces the cost of production. But in Hollywood, it has magnified it.

I agree with Chris above — those 2 should be able to get financing and distribution without a problem.

David Davenport said...

hey've proven they know how to make movies people actually want to see. So yes, I expect them to be able to sell good movies to people they've made a lot of money for without too much difficulty.

But how did *Red Tails* do at the box office?

Not too well, I'm guessing. A money loser made for pious sentiments.

Unknown said...

"But how did *Red Tails* do at the box office?"

According to Box Office Mojo, it grossed just a little over $50 million worldwide, on an estimated $58 million production budget.

The rule of thumb I've always heard is that a movie has to gross somewhere between two to three times budget in order to break even, what with distribution costs, advertising, and the fact that the studios don't get all that gross money.

So, in short, it seems "Red Tails" tanked hard.

paminwi said...

We rented Lincoln when it came out on DVD. My, husband, who is a Lincoln fan, fell asleep 2 different times trying to get through the movie. I fell asleep once, and the next time he turned it on I decided to clean the bathroom instead.

Boring all around!

William said...

They like to do some pro bono work to validate their views of themslves as significant and useful members of society. But they need to charge premium rates in order to finance their yachts, ranches, and divorce settlements.

Joe said...

Studio execs aren't the smartest people in the room and can't often predict which movies will break out and become blockbusters (nobody can) they sure as hell can see which movies are stinkers. Spielberg knows this and is being completely disingenuous; I suspect that his ego doesn't want to admit he made a stinker and Lincoln is a stinker.

CWJ said...

Could the reluctance be that Hollywood has finally grown tired of the race message? I wouldn't be surprised if this year's "42" met the same problems. Has there been a big message movie lately where the message has been something anything other than race?

YoungHegelian said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
YoungHegelian said...

@Elise Ronan,

...the bottom line in their business is still profit.Just like anyone else.

I would like to believe that, but, after Hollywood releasing thirteen anti-Iraq War films in the course of W's eight years in office, all of which tanked at the box office (the biggest example being Redacted), I think that, in their hearts, Hollywood producers see themselves first as culture warriors & businessmen second.

readering said...

Since when were the values in Lincoln (which I saw and admired, although not as much as I admired his Amistad) and Red Tails (which the reviews warned me away from) classified as "Liberal Values"? Because they involved race in wartime?

Capt. Schmoe said...

I found Lincoln to be well written, cast, directed and acted. Red tails, none of the above.

The thing about movies is that people go to the show for different reasons.

Some go to be entertained while seeing a thought provoking film, one that is worthy of future discussion and analysis.

Others go to be mindlessly entertained, almost as a form of escapism.

Either is subjective. Movie making is inherently risky from a profit standpoint, with cable and video having bailed out a lot of producers in the recent past.

It always seems to be worked out, with the marketplace setting the standard.

Leah said...

No, Ms. Althouse, neither "Lincoln" nor "Red Tails" were or are considered to be blockbusters.

I'm a retired writer, and I just called a friend of mine who worked on it to check out the actual budget for "Lincoln."

It was made for a price in the low sixty millions. That is not a blockbuster budget, nor is it particularly expensive for a historical story with a large cast of speaking parts. Advertising would be an additional cost, but nothing like forty billion to get to the a production price of 100 million.

The film made money for its backers, with a gross take combining US and global receipts of over 250 million.

Your representation of the linked article is completely backwards. What Spielberg and Lucas were defending is the non-blockbuster smaller, less expensive movies that are often crowded out of being produced by Hollywood's determined betting on blockbusters. This was a bad year for that strategy, and Spielberg and Lucas were projecting a future time when the studios could implode from that particular bet.

Thus far, they've been wrong, as the article explains.

What any of that has to do with either of these two directors having a misshapen sense of entitlement or liberal values you have failed to clarify in your discussion of either film.

As other commentators have noted, having a track record like Spielberg and Lucas does give a certain amount of entitlement.

I should also note that "Red Tails" was not a good film and didn't earn back what it cost to make;it's subject matter deserved better, nor do I think that Lucas has as impressive an oeuvre as Spielberg.

I can assure you that the age of the million to 5 million small independent production is pretty much over, unless you're a Joss Whedon and you shoot "Much Ado About Nothing" in black and white at your own house.

As for Spielberg having thrown his weight around, you seem woefully ignorant of how film properties are developed. Spielberg began to develop "Lincoln" in 2001. It went through multiple writers, and development at more than one studio.

It would be nice in your future attempts to do cultural analysis of Hollywood and its various products if you took the time to know what you're talking about.

It would also be nice if your commentators, like MathMom, for instance, could go to the trouble of citing just one example of a charge like "recently the Left began to try to convince people that Lincoln was a Democrat;the film "Lincoln" made it abundantly clear that he was a Republican.

If she meant Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. the son rather than the father of the same name, he was neither a Democrat nor a Republican; how he voted was not something he made public. That he had an important,complicated relationship with both President Kennedy and President Johnson is undeniable. That King's father might have been a Republican would surprise no one on the left.

YoungHegelian said...


Let me post in defense of MathMom:

Lincoln as Democrat. Follow links at article.

For someone who seems so fond of pointing out the ignorance of others, I'd like you to know I found that link by googling "lincoln democrat plaque". It was real technical tour de force, let me tell ya.

I know you don't mean to do this, but you do seem to fulfill every stereotype that non-movie industry folks have about the movie industry. Would you like the folks in this forum to have a long discussion with you about how Hollywood never seems to get the details of their line of business right, in the sort of language you used? Oh, but I forgot, it's only Hollywood who gets to craft narratives that ignore the facts on the ground. My bad....

Revenant said...

I'd say you are wrong because $100 million was spent making each of those movies. It's not like they were modest-budget art films. They were lavish films promoted in part based on spectacle and action.

According to IMDB, Lincoln's budget was $65 million and Red Tails' was $58 million. They probably broke $100 million each when you include marketing, but that doesn't put them anywhere near modern blockbuster territory.

Revenant said...

I should also note that "Red Tails" was not a good film and didn't earn back what it cost to make;it's subject matter deserved better, nor do I think that Lucas has as impressive an oeuvre as Spielberg.

It is also worth noting that Lucas was just the executive producer of Red Tails. "Executive producer" is a title given to people who were instrumental in getting it made but had little to do with the actual creation of the film. The director, writers and producers were a bunch of relative unknowns.

MathMom said...

Young Hegelian -

Thank you for defending my honor to Leah. I normally put links for everything but was pressed for time.


Now, dear Leah, you might carefully read my comment and notice that I did not imply that the movie Lincoln tried to present President Lincoln as a Democrat. Fortunately, Young Hegelian is better read than you and was able help you decrease your ignorance. Fortunately for all of us, ignorance is curable.

As to Dr. Martin Luther King JUNIOR, please accept my humble apologies for failing to add the Jr. My bad, all over! But that does not change the fact that Dr. Martin Luther King JUNIOR was a Republican.

Alveda King, his niece and "founder of the faith-based group King for America. In the Sept. 14, 2008, video, she says: "I just want to share with you a little bit about my family and my history. My uncle Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during his lifetime was a Republican, as was my father, his brother, Rev. A. D. King, and my grandfather, Dr. Martin Luther King Sr.""

Elise Ronan said...

Red Tails had nothing to do with actually desegregating the military. It was merely about the particular squadron during WW2 and how hard it was for them to get to fight in the war. It showed the racism of their superiors and of the military at the time. None fo which, I think can honestly be refuted on an intellectual basis.

As far as Wilson is concerned, this was not part of the movie's narrative at all.Nor should it have been.

Young Hegelian-
Good point.

MathMom said...

Thanks, Elise.

Leah said...

I joined this discussion so late that I didn't realize there might be more comments in response to mine.

Now that I see that there were, I feel those who did comment deserve a response.

Thank you for the link Young Hegelien, and MathMom I can certainly understand that we all have other things to do than comment on blogs.

However, I would still argue, having read the Huffington Post link, and the article referenced at the Hollywood Reporter, and I would still argue that your characterization of them is misleading.

Yes, Tony Kushner and Steven Spielberg and Delores Kearns Goodwin are all self-identified liberals, but they are not "the Left," and they were not trying to claim Lincoln for the Democratic Party either as a historical figure, or as a modern day Democrat.

They were noting that the current Republican Party takes a very different view of the role of the federal government than did the historical Lincoln. I think the reason we are often tempted to imagine what a figure like Washington, or Jefferson, or Lincoln would make of today's politics is because they are still alive for us in our history and our documents and our institutions, which I see as a good thing, although it's impossible to really know how those historical figures. would see the present.

I think Kushner and Goodman make a solid argument that the current Republican Party, with it's emphasis on states' rights, and what with talk of nullification and even succession, has moved away from Lincoln, who fought a war to defend the primacy of the union.

MathMom's characterization of that discussion as "...recently the Left began to try to convince people that Lincoln was a Democrat" is hardly a an accurate or a fair one. It makes it sound like this is some kind of budding movement on the left, when, in fact, it was an off-hand discussion that was part of the publicity roll-out for the film.

As to Dr. King, I was not being pedantic or critical of you for leaving off the "Jr," I often do the same when talking about Dr. King, I only wanted to know if you meant the father or the son, precisely because I was aware that the father, who bore the same name, without the Jr., of course, and was also a minister, might well have been a Republican. Middle-class African-Americans were often Republicans, and one can easily understand why.

You are simply wrong about Dr. King Jr: he never made known a party affiliation, never endorsed a candidate, and he criticized both parties. Of course, he was actively pursuing civil rights legislation, and he had allies in both parties in that pursuit. In fact, he did campaign againste Barry Goldwater in the 1964 election.

The only sources who make claims of King's Republicanism are right-wing ones, which I think fairly applies to Alveda King whom you cite as your authority. I discount her not because I disagree with her politics, but because for years now she has made claims about the younger Dr. King which are just not true. For instance, she claims that Martin was "pro-life," despite the fact that he was publicly supportive of Planned Parenthood and accepted an award which carried the name of Margaret Sanger. Alveda King also claims that Martin rejected the "homosexual agenda. Martin's acceptance of Bayard Rustin suggests otherwise.

In fact, David Garrow massive biography of King documents that King was farther left than the Democratic Party. Garrow has publicly criticized Alveda's attempts to include Martin Luther King, Jr in our own political agenda. She seeks to speak for Martin and even claims her words should take precedence over Coretta's.

Young Hegelian, I couldn't understand what you saying to me that last paragraph. It does seem to me that both you and MathMom used a tone of sarcasm and condescension that was quite different from the fact based neutral tone that I certainly tried for, however failedthat attempt might have been