Dominant Dollars

glenn criddle | cynical celluloid | july 2016

In its obsessive rush to make a fast buck, Hollywood, and in particular, the studio system has lost its drive to make good films to the “need" to make money. Sounds like hyperbole right? Why shouldn't the studios make money? You may ask these questions and more, and the chances are, I would agree to a large extent. The studios are, after all, businesses, and their survival does depend on cash flow.

My concerns are less to do with the business side of show business doing its thing, after all, that's how the future of the industry is secured, my problem is that the business side has become so dominant that it is the primary concern for film studios. Now I'm not about to advocate that studios drop all commercial filmmaking and concentrate on art house by any means. After all, most of my favourite films are in the exploitation genre and those are films exist largely on the strength of mining a specific audience. No. The studios have long needed a good return at the box office, but the trend has shifted so much more heavily towards financial return as to reach the point of vulgarity.

Commanding multi-million dollar budgets of the order of hundreds of millions, the financial concerns have put a high commercial expectation on the performance of films these days. This is to the point that even when making seemingly obscene profits a film can be considered a flop. Why is this? Well in a word, capitalism. Yeah, I know I sound like a commie here, but hear me out. For each film made, you have the production costs, say $100-million for the sake of argument, which is the figure most commonly compared to the box office returns. Of course, being a big film, it needs advertising and promotion, which for some reason in the days of the Internet seems to cost anything up to a quarter of the film's budget on top of the production costs, which means the film has to make that and, of course, in line with good business practice, it needs to make a significant return on top of that. The profit is split in various ways depending on the deals made with concerned parties; investors, actors, creatives, studios, the list goes on and what's left can be invested back into the next film. Unfortunately, there is a lack of priority when it comes to financing a film and the money that goes into making a film is going places other than on what viewers see on the screen.

The thing is that money has become the primary focus for studios, and this is increasingly working at odds with the artistic side of filmmaking. Smaller films, independents, art-house films and just plain passion projects are struggling, not only to find finance but screen time as well. Just look at your local multiplex cinema, look at the screening times and titles and you'll see a lot of big name films, primarily the blockbuster style films, with a lot more screening and being shown on several screens more often than not. This isn't simply because these films are popular, they have to be popular, they have to be served up like fast food so people don't have to wait too long until the next screening even if that means playing to nearly empty auditoriums throughout the day. It's about bums on seats. Because these films are so very expensive to make it's driving up the ticket prices and with a shockingly narrow profit margin for the theatres, it's not unreasonable to say that they have to show those films much more often at the expense of other films.

The main problem is that the obsession with increasingly high standards of “success" is driving filmmakers and studios down a self-perpetuating path of chasing ludicrous returns. How many times do we hear the cost of a movie being thrown out there as if that's a measure of quality? How many times do we see a big name actor getting a role and an obscene amount of money despite being fundamentally unsuited to the part? I could go on.

The worst thing, for us the audience, is that Hollywood now has to play it safe. There's far too much money on the line to take risks and Hollywood will pile all its money into a smattering of big projects that they hope will not tank like “Fan4stick" did. Unfortunately for them, the assured gain that a big blockbuster used to be is not so certain anymore, and the movie industry is treading on some unstable ground. In a world where success has to be immediate rather than long term, Hollywood has put itself in a precarious position where a couple of box office flops could destroy major studios and their legacy will be a few half-decent blockbusters and a whole lot of remakes that won't be worth a damn.

This is what you get when the kinds of people in the executive offices are overwhelmingly business orientated and not filmmakers or artists. A balance needs to be struck between the business and the art. Dial back the blockbusters, the quick fix money projects and start making films that will retain an audience, dare I say it better nourish our appreciation of what a film can be. I don't want to see blockbusters go away, but I do want to see films with artistic ambition get a bigger shot at success which can't happen in an environment where not only are they squeezed out by the tent pole films but where the audience are more or less trained to “shut off their brains" by exposure to nothing but noisy, flashy set piece films. It just needs a studio system that actually values the art as much as the money, a little more show, a little less business.


He's British so forgive the extra U's and the use of the letter S instead of Z. If there's one thing that typifies Glenn's writing it's the 'Video Nasties,' a long list of movies that offended all and sunder during the 1980s in the UK. It's those seemingly offensive fringes of cinema that informed his writing on cinema and the more political area of censorship with a more sympathetic approach to those films that push the limits of taste. But don't worry, he does talk about normal stuff too and isn't likely to go off on a horror movie fuelled rampage.

For more of Glenn's work, visit cynicalcelluloid.com.


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