Is the Movie Business Killing the Movies?

GUEST AUTHOR BLOG BY: David Denby author of "Do the Movies Have a Future?"


I’ve been writing movie criticism for a long time, but I still have the same thirst for movies, for sitting in a big dark room with strangers (yes, I’m a romantic about the primal experience of going to a theater) that I had when I was a teenager.

I’m also lucky to live in New York, where there’s a constant flood of independent movies, foreign films, documentaries and everything else playing all the time. There’s always something interesting to see, something to write about.

My book, "Do the Movies have a Future?", is a record of the last dozen years or so, a mix of critical judgment, business analysis, celebration of good movies, writing about such genres as chick flicks and romantic comedies, and occasional expressions of misery.

In truth, I’m depressed (really, all the veteran critics are depressed) by the way the business is going now.

None of what I’m about to say is new, of course. It’s been true for twenty-five years, ever since the conglomerates tightened their grip on the studios.

But it gets worse each year.

The big picture (allowing for some exceptions) is this: The six major studios want to make three kinds of movies. They want to make blockbusters costing $150 million and up (with another $50 to $100 million spent on promotion)—that is, films that are based on comic books, video games, and young adult novels. They want to make animated features, some of which, of course, are very good. And they want to make genre movies—thrillers, chick flicks, romantic comedies, weekend-debauch movies, horror movies—that have mostly an assured audience. The range of films made by the studios has shrunken—serious drama is virtually out of the question. A good, solid movie like Tony Gilroy’s Michael Clayton(2007), with George Clooney, wouldn’t have a shot at being made now. The blockbuster obsession joins with the opening-weekend obsession. Since grownups tend to wait for reviews or word from friends, they don’t go the first few days the movie is playing.

In other words, young audiences are exercising an influence on what gets made way out of proportion to their numbers in the population. Apart from the fall season, adults are abandoned like downsized workers for most of the year. The studios could make more interesting choices, play for a series of small winners rather than hope for the big killing; they have chosen to put themselves in the box they find themselves in now, when the entire management rests on the success or failure of a single inane movie designed for kids.

Now, there are artists and entertainers like Wes Anderson, Steven Soderbergh, and Judd Apatow who can function very well within this system, but there are many directors who cannot—who have been forced out to the edges and have to spend four, five, six years rounding up money from odd sources (Abu Dhabi, Meg Ellison, you name it) in order to say what they want to say. Don’t forget that the old Hollywood--which liked money just as much as this Hollywood--allowed John Ford, Howard Hawks, John Huston and many other great directors to make two or three movies a year. Paul Thomas Anderson, one of the most talented men in Hollywood, finally got to make The Master, but it took five years to get funding. After making Capote, Bennett Miller was idle for six years before making Moneyball. Six unproductive years in the life of a great young filmmaker! Alexander Payne waited seven years (after Sideways) before making The Descendants.

You get the point: Many of the most talented people are not working very much.

There’s always the independent cinema, of course, and these productions range from moderately expensive to dirt cheap (literally a few thousand dollars), but it’s very hard for many serious independent films to get traction in the theaters. Marketing is extraordinarily expensive, the theater chains can be hostile to independent movies (money is made in the complexes by the maximum number of bodies lining up at concession stands). Still, every year, two or three things break through to a decent-sized audience. Last year, it was Margin Call, a very shrewd dramatization of a Lehman-type meltdown. This year it’s the extraordinary Beasts of the Southern Wild, which, at this writing, looks like a leading contender for an Oscar nomination, even a victory.

Imagine! A movie made by a very young man, Benh Zeitlin, costing exactly $1.3, set in an obscure corner of the country—the bayous southwest of new Orleans—and starring non-actors, offers a visionary picture of life as imagined by a six-year-old girl, and it enchants almost everyone who has seen it.

Obviously, there’s still hope. I also have high hopes for Zero Dark Thirty(Kathyrn Bigelow’s movie about the Navy Seals), Spielberg’s Lincoln, and other things coming out in the next six months. I will keep looking, keep writing, keep bringing the news.

Sector Watch - Hollywood's Leading Studios:

  • Warner Brothers
  • Walt Disney Co.
  • News Corp.
  • Lions Gate Entertainment Corp.
  • Sony Corp.
  • DreamWorks Animation SKG

David Denby is a film critic for The New Yorker and the author of Do the Movies Have a Future? (Simon & Schuster).

Email me at
bullishonbooks@cnbc.comAnd follow me on Twitter @BullishonBooks