A Changing Industry-A Producer’s Hollywood

This article was originally part of the Insider Cinema guide to Hollywood, a website from the mid-2000s. We are reposting it here as both a writing sample and a guide for those seeking to get their foot in the door in Hollywood.

Every industry is constantly changing due to a number of different factors: advances in technology; changes in law; union and management alterations; international trade; etc. Hollywood is no different. People forget that the core word in show-business is Business. In this article, we are going to discuss the recent changes due to the past few years of terrible business Hollywood has done.

First, you must look at Hollywood from a Macro-Economic level (big picture), because no business exists in a vacuum. Hollywood’s recent troubles began not with the summer of 2006, but with the release of Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship of The Ring in 2001. As Hollywood executives are sometimes prone to do when a certain film does exceptionally well, its genre or subject matter will become “hot,” and every studio in town will try to produce at least one copycat. This occurred most recently with the musical craze following Moulin Rouge and Chicago, spawning films like From Justin To Kelly, Dreamgirls, Rent, Ray, and even several failed attempts at musicals like the remake of Bye, Bye, Birdie which is now in jeopardy. The dilemma with Lord Of The Rings is that it was labeled as an epic, but everyone forgets that it was done for only $87 million. However, that didn’t stop other studios and directors from green-lighting other epics with budgets as high as $150 million dollars each.

Often, many of these copycat films are unwatchable, and with good reason. The scripts are rushed in and out of development, sometimes by novice writers who don’t know what they’re doing, or some writers who are just untalented hacks. They attach directors who are famous but don’t care greatly about the subject matter, so the studios overcompensate the director with an exorbitant salary. Then when the studios are still on the fence about the film (because it’s a bad script, but they don’t know or care about fixing it), they try to attach as many major and expensive stars as possible. This creates a conundrum in Hollywood, one that I don’t believe exists in any other industry. If a film production starts to go awry because of any reason (poor acting, poor directing, poor on-set management, behind schedule, over budget, etc) the studio will often have a choice between canceling production entirely, having a hiatus, changing a key person of the cast or crew, or do nothing and hope you can fix it in post. Each has its own merits, and each has its own drawbacks.

Canceling Production Entirely

In many businesses, if a product is failing, or it looks like it’s going to fail, a company will cut its losses. While this is a waste of money with no result, it is still better than continuing ahead and wasting more money on mass production, marketing, shipment, and in some cases, returns and rejections of the product in the marketplace. Imagine if everyone who saw Matrix Revolutions got a refund simply because they didn’t like the movie. Even though film history is filled with bad movies that should have been canceled when they ran into trouble, studio executives rarely do this.

  • The main excuse is that they’ve already invested too much money into the production, and they think it would be better to release it and recoup the money with a big marketing campaign and push on DVD sales than lose what they’ve invested so far. Plus, films are planned on when they will be released, and the studios are always competing against one another. “But we can’t cancel Ninjas In Space, it’s our big fourth of July release.” Other reasons can be as varied as the films themselves.
  • The executives have an emotional attachment to the film.
  • Pressure from the Board of Directors.
  • The executive is a fan of the star.
  • The executive is a friend of the director or producer.
  • An executive may be new to the film industry, and their reputation may be on the line.
  • Or just plain ego.

Having a Hiatus (Tactical Fallback)

Many films have taken a hiatus and taken a week or more off to reevaluate the script, shooting style, and other aspects of the production to examine what’s going wrong. Unfortunately, it can sometimes be seen by superiors as a sign of weakness. Even if the product is substantially better because of the hiatus, superiors will still see those who made the decision as to the ones who held up production.

Another important consideration is your cast and crew. Will you pay them or will you let them dangle? This is a ‘you’re damned if you do, you’re damned if you don’t’ scenario. If you pay them holding money, you’re wasting your budget and risking your career. If you don’t pay them, you may lose your cast and crew to other projects and may slow down the production’s flow once you start back up.

Changing a key person of the cast or crew

The first person to go when production is falling behind is the Assistant Director. The A.D. is in charge of running the set, so for practical matters such as budget and schedule problems, firing the A.D. is usually the most logical solution. However, what if the slowdown is due to one particular department such as lighting or production design? The A.D. is the first in the line of fire, so they can’t afford to go silent when they spot a problem. Sometimes a production is floundering because of legitimate reasons, like bizarre weather, an actor’s health problems, or poor locations. It’s up to a good executive to figure out what’s wrong.

According to some producers, you have until the middle of the second week to make a decision about this, otherwise, the production’s flow will significantly slow down, plus, crew loyalty builds up, and you could face a mutiny and walk out when the decision is made.

What if the person that needs to be replaced is the D.P.? That becomes complicated since most directors fall in love with their D.P.’s and can even be intimidated by them. If the D.P. needs to be changed, it should be done quickly and quietly, and a full case has to be presented to the director. Also, a full list of Gaffers, Electricians, Camera People, and Grips have to be on the ready, because the D.P. often brings on his own people to work as Gaffer, Key Grip, and Assistant Cameramen, and they have brought on their own team, so a decision like this could create a domino effect, and result in a loss of half your crew.

When it comes to actors and directors, replacing them can be much trickier. I am not encouraging this course of action, but sometimes it is necessary. Similar to a D.P. and their teams, the director-actor relationships can be crucial to a film. The loss of a popular director can result in a cast mutiny, or the cast may stay on, but the phone in their performances and take on passive-aggressive behavior with the new director. Perhaps you can find a director who has worked with the picture’s lead actor before, and their positive relationship will carry over to the rest of the film. Or you could replace an inexperienced director with a legend like Steven Spielberg, but few legends are willing to come into a film half-finished.

It’s also risky politically because if the film turns out bad, you’ll be the executive that fired Catherine Zeta-Jones in favor of Radha Mitchell.

It’s because of all these risks that most studio executives choose…

Do nothing and hope you can fix it in post

The annals of the film industry are filled with examples of poor productions that were fixed with a little editing. However, this course of action is largely based on one solid foundation, Luck.

I go into great detail about these practices to illustrate how things in Hollywood are done, and how they can be done. Now, I am not trashing Hollywood films, I think they produce the best films in the world. And I’m not saying the studio system is broken.

How best then to tighten the belts of Hollywood? Well, several methods are already being implemented.

  • Salary caps of $10 million for all actors.
  • Cut the number of movies made in half.
  • Cut development money by 75%.
  • Produce more ultra-high-concept or title-films such as 40 Year Old Virgin, Wedding Crashers, and Snakes On A Plane.
  • Cut the number of first look and exclusive deals studios make with producers, production companies, and actors.

But these changes are only cosmetic. There are two ways to fix the studio system as it stands now.

Spec Script Market

For a long time, the spec script market (or scripts that have been written before any promise of money has been offered) has always taken a back seat to screenplays based on novels (because they supposedly have a built-in audience), or writers who come in to pitch projects back and forth between executives, and either the writer will pitch an idea to the executive, or visa versa.

However, because of the reasons listed above, both need to be abandoned. Quite often, production companies will spend exorbitant amounts of money on buying the rights to books, and these won’t pan out into success at the box office. The pitch market also needs to be abandoned because the production companies are investing too much money in projects based on concepts, with little to no material to show for it. The production companies today need to invest in finished scripts that have solid, tangible stories to them, for the simple reason that they can’t afford to spend money on pitches anymore.

Vertical Integration

Since the Supreme Court ruled that Hollywood Studios could not own their own theatre chains in U.S. v. Paramount in 1948, studios have had to deal with national and regional distributors to release their movies. It’s because of these distributors that the demand rose for known Hollywood stars before a release date could be guaranteed.

Additional demands came from the distributors, such as genre and content requirements, leaning towards over-the-top comedies and cheesy action films, rather than touching and heartwarming dramas. If the distributors were given a film they didn’t like or believe in, they could sabotage it, displaying it at odd times, poor local marketing, or other activities, just making sure they broke even to cover their own expenses, while leaving the studio high and dry. This mentality has seeped into Hollywood, and standards have gradually lowered.

The truth is people want to see good movies, not necessarily dramas, but good movies. However, because of the middle-man scenario that has been set up with distributors, the standards have been forced lower. Because of this, audiences have become bitter over films and sought other forms of entertainment (night clubs, comedy clubs, video games, internet, video rental, etc.) and the entire industry has suffered because of it. The best way to reverse this is to allow studios to own their own theatre chains again.

If legislation is passed allowing studios to own their own theatre chains, they can make quality films, without having to worry about distributors making excessive demands of them, and degrading their overall body of work.

Do you have your own thoughts?

Let us know in the comments!

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