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What's Wrong with Hollywood?

Updated on June 28, 2010

Is it me, or have movies really been trending downwards in quality since the beginning of the new millennium? I’m just speaking generally of course, but lately I rarely get a strong urge to go to the theater and when I do go, I usually leave disappointed. Who controls what movies get made and play in theaters? The major Hollywood studios. And what determines a screenplay’s eligibility to get made into a film? Potential profit. Moviemaking is a business after all. Let’s explore some Hollywood history in order to better understand what kind of movies make it into theaters when and why.

By the mid-1960s the Hollywood studio system was seriously on the ropes financially. In 1948, a monumental antitrust case known as the Paramount decision forced the vertically integrated studios to divest themselves of their theater chains. That and the invention of television added up to a tremendous hit on studio profits, and they became pretty desperate for a new way to sell. Gimmicks like 3-D and Smell-O-Vision were tried, but with little success. Studios needed to tap into the baby boomer market of young, educated filmgoers, but in order to do so they needed some brand new talent.

This was the beginning of New Hollywood. Young film school graduates were getting hired, and the studios were giving them unprecedented creative control. You may have heard of some of these young directors: Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, Steven Spielberg, and George Lucas are among them. For many of these film authors, imbuing their films with messages of rebellion that the youth counterculture could relate to was very important. This led to the production of many socially aware, cinematographically artful films being produced within the studio system, a stark contrast to the studios’ once assembly-line-like production methodology.

However, as early as 1975, this type of creative production was already in danger of being replaced by the studios’ current primary hard-hitting moneymaker—the blockbuster. Jaws (dir. Steven Spielberg, 1975) and Star Wars (dir. George Lucas, 1977) were revolutionary for their time because they could be advertised in a single sentence or even a single image (in the industry they call this high-concept, as in ‘high on concept, low on everything else’). This made them very easy to sell to a mass market.

High Concept Through the Ages

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Since then, the high-concept blockbuster has dominated U.S. screens. They tend to be characterized by a focus on special effects or spectacle, and are often labeled with names of famous actors and directors. Lately, many blockbusters are adaptations of previously successful material, or sequels to financial successful films. The studios figure, if it has sold well in the past, it will continue to do so. Even if these movies are crap, people will still pay to go see their favorite characters on the big screen.

Adapted Blockbusters

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If that isn’t enough to make you go see the movie, the studios invest upwards of 50% of a film’s production cost toward marketing. (The average production budget for a studio film in 2007 was $70.8 million; on top of that studios spent $35.9 million per movie average on marketing.1) When you see ads for a movie in every possible venue—on billboards, buses, cups, the internet, etc.—as you often do for blockbusters, it’s called saturation marketing.

And the worst part of it all is… they got their theaters back. Because the major studios are now integrated into multimedia conglomerates, they get around antitrust law like the Paramount decision. So the studios are determining what gets shown in your average theater.

Although there are still some pretty good independent films being made outside the studio system, the only chance you might have to see them is in an independent or art house theater, and there aren’t that many of those around. Luckily, the internet is becoming a burgeoning market for independent films, and many young independent filmmakers are using free sites like YouTube to showcase their work.

My guess as to what’s really wrong with Hollywood is that, in trying to make money, they forgot how to tell stories. There are plenty of great new screenplays floating around, but the studios always choose to invest in the ‘sure’ thing. Before the invention of modern special effects and CGI technology, movies had to concentrate on stories, characters and dialogue, as well as cinematography, because they didn’t have the mass marketing schemes and spectacle they rely on so heavily now. What I suggest is that they try working with original content that fits with what has worked for them in the past. For example, I’m a big fan of superhero movies, and I’d say 95% or more are adapted from comic books. Comics are a pretty visually based medium already, so they tend to translate well into films, but I can imagine a superhero story designed just for the screen would work even better. (The Incredibles was a great one; My Super Ex-Girlfriend, not so much.) The important thing is to remember that interesting, lifelike, relatable characters matter, and that is why I will have a lot of indecision around going to see another X-men movie in theaters, even though they’re bringing back the original director.


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    • girlincape profile imageAUTHOR

      Kasey Rubenstein 

      8 years ago from California

      Blockbuster films used to be a lot better-- Spielberg and Jaws provide us with great examples-- it's only just very recently, like within the last decade that I find that the blockbuster mentality has lost all of its appeal. Mainly I think it's because there are no more original stories so everything seems to turn out boring.

      As for the problem of people going to the theaters to see the bad films, there's not a lot anyone can do about it besides not going to see them or telling their friends not to see them. It's unlikely Hollywood will change its ways unless it starts to suffer financially like it did just before New Hollywood started.

      People don't go to independent theaters because they don't know about them. They aren't presented to us in the same advertising format as blockbusters, they aren't as widely socially accepted, and people don't know what to expect from the movies playing in them. Most people are too lazy to research a movie before they go see it; we just want easy thrills that Hollywood is more than willing to provide.

      I can tell you feel pretty strongly about all of this, but in the end there's not a lot you can do about it. Go see the films that are worth seeing and recommend them to your friends. Or, make your own film and market it to the world via the internet!

      I don't know what else to tell you except that I greatly appreciate your impassioned comments.

    • profile image

      Skin Deep 

      8 years ago

      Sorry, I wanted to seperate the post to seperate the points.

      I agree that the saturation of the market is a part of the problem. That is only a part of the problem, however. We can choose not to spend $10 - $12 per person to go see a bad movie. It is not like it is the first time it has ever happened to us. We know from experience - most of us have been to the movies a few times - that the advertising doesn't reflect the quality of the movie.

      People are still going to see The Last Airbender, even though the reviews have called it the worst movie of the decade.

      Most cities have a theatre that shows independent films. People choose not to go.

      When a movie like No Country for Old Men, or There Will be Blood are in the theatres they do not rock the box office.

      With Netflix, we have access to almost any movies we want to see, but the blockbusters still draw a much larger audience (saturation definitely being a part of it.) But we don't demand quality. Only a very small part of the population cares about quality, and for them, there's independent films.

      Saturation is part of it, but it also has to do with us having a short attention span, and low comprehension skills - and not really demanding or wanting better. If it hurt their pocketbook - which we do have control over - then the quality would improve.

    • profile image

      Skin Deep 

      8 years ago

      Seven Samurai defend a village of peasants against bandits.

      That is the surface level story summed up. There are many iconic images that could easily be thrown on the side of a bus.

      Of course there's a lot more to the movie then the surface level story. There is character development, a historical context, great visuals, and a sweeping unification of all these elements through theme.

      I was using it as an example specifically because of Jaws. The surface level story of Jaws can also be summed up in a sentence, but that doesn't mean that there is nothing else there. Jaws is also rich in theme which is an essay within itself. It is rich in character development. The shotlist and camera work is solid.

      Thematically, it doesn't challenge or push our understanding of the human condition, as much as it gives an accurate depiction of it - in this case specifically the theme of isolation. For this, it has been accused of being simple or obvious. I think if it wasn't so financially successful, the criticism would be less harsh.

      Sorry, getting off track again.

      I agree with your hub, in that the studios latched onto the idea that a good tagline sells more tickets.

      My Jaws/Seven Samurai reference was to say that it is a matter of what the studios chose to see as what is valuable in Jaws. I wouldn't, however, reduce the movie to what they extracted from it.

      The point that they missed is that Jaws is still making them money because there is more to it than the tagline. Most of these blockbusters that they make are forgotten by the time the next one comes out. Unlike Jaws, they won't be raking in money in thirty years. It's all short term thinking.

    • girlincape profile imageAUTHOR

      Kasey Rubenstein 

      8 years ago from California

      Insightful comment. I'm definitely not saying a high concept and/or blockbuster film can't be good-- as a matter of fact many of them are expertly done-- I'm just saying that Hollywood has adopted a strategy of only producing this type of film, and many of them turn out bad.

      I haven't seen Seven Samurai, but judging by some quick research and what I've heard I'd say it's not high concept. If you tried to summarize the entire story in a sentence you probably wouldn't get the entire point of it across. Also, there's no iconic poster image that could be used to advertise it.

      I think your last two points are related. The reason we pay to see bad movies is because those seem to be the only option in our theaters most of the time. That and the saturation marketing strategies used can compel us to see bad films on a regular basis.

      I'll try to keep hubbing about good movies that you can see as an alternative.

    • profile image

      Skin Deep 

      8 years ago

      I agree with all that you're saying, however, I think it is only a part of the story.

      Jaws, although an easily marketable film, is also a solid film. A theme connects every moment in the film, the characters are sympathetic, and the acting is solid - with Robert Shaw being exceptional. The subject matter might not be challenging, but it is a solid movie.

      I don't know that you are necessarily disagreeing with that, but it is implied that Jaws is one of the high concept - low in everything else - categories. You can have high concept, and high everything else, for example, SEven Samurai.

      Anyway - the part of the puzzle that I think is missing is that WE PAY TO SEE BAD MOVIES. If we only paid to see good movies, then that would become part of the criteria for a movie to get funded. Movies will receive 4 out of 10 in a number of rating systems, and thousands will see it anyway.

      Regardless, I like your hub, and I also would like to have options of good movies to see each week, as opposed to having to say, "Is this really the choice you're giving me?"

    • girlincape profile imageAUTHOR

      Kasey Rubenstein 

      8 years ago from California

      Yeah! I mentioned adaptations and sequels but I forgot to mention remakes too! Those are all the rage now...

    • carolina muscle profile image

      carolina muscle 

      8 years ago from Charlotte, North Carolina

      I agree... the lack of originality is telling!!

      good post!


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