The story of Hollywood is the same story as every other industry and facet of American culture: money is king.
In the 80s and 90s, films used to be driven by star power. People would go see a movie starring Julia Roberts because they knew what they were going to get, and studios could fairly accurately ballpark their expected profits. As the times have changed (and DVD sales have plummeted in preference to home streaming services), so has the way Hollywood earns its dollars. In the 2000s and 2010s, the franchise model became the most lucrative. Fritz writes: “Moviegoers looking for the consistent, predictable satisfaction they used to get from their favorite stars now turn to cinematic universes. Any movie with ‘Jurassic’ in the title is sure to feature family-friendly adventures on an island full of dinosaurs, no matter who plays the human roles.” Today, not enough people want to risk paying 15 bucks at a theater on a small budget family drama when they can simply wait and stream it at home. Moviegoers want to know what they’re getting and the best way for Hollywood to oblige is to funnel its attention into fewer movies that have a higher chance of success. Welcome to the stage all the superheroes nobody ever cared about, in addition to Harry Potter, Jurassic Park, Star Wars, and any other ‘cinematic universe’ that can produce an infinite number of sequels and spinoffs. Nobody has capitalized on this new model better than Disney with their franchise tags on both the Marvel Universe and everything Star Wars. Add to that their animation studio (which still produces original films) and their steady production of live-action remakes of old animated classics, and they are the team to beat.
Another reason for the dominance of huge-budget films featuring dazzling special effects is the emergence of the incredibly lucrative international box-office. Turns out you don’t have to speak English to enjoy watching Thor smite enemies with his hammer. In China alone, “total box-office sales skyrocketed from $248 million in 2005 to $6.6 billion in 2016.” When you look at numbers like that, it’s no wonder that Hollywood kowtows to their Chinese consumers—the overseas movie market is now larger than the domestic one! “I never even thought about China ten years ago,” said Adam Goldman, the former head of production for Paramount Pictures. “Now we’re at a point where Hollywood can’t exist without China.”
The place in our lexicon for interesting dramas has been relocated to television. “By 2016, the ultimate profit from Breaking Bad was estimated at more than $400 million.” Fritz reports, “That made it the second-most-profitable piece of entertainment content Sony had made in the twenty-first century, behind only the original Spiderman.” It’s no wonder nobody produces indie dramas for the theater anymore! If they are produced, they mostly go straight to streaming services like Netflix, HBO, and Amazon, and there is a reason for this as well.
The culture of a society is a constantly morphing thing and as our culture changes, so do our institutions. The new reality is that movies do not command the same cultural appreciation that they used to. With the rise of On-Demand media (including movies, music, television, podcasts, and more) movies have become just another source of content. When the old studios like 20th Century Fox, Sony, and Paramount were in charge, movies were made because they loved the stories and believed that their audiences would as well. Whether you like it or not, the new movie producers on the block (Amazon, Disney, Apple) don’t make movies primarily to make money from movies. They make movies to continue to dominate people’s time and digital behavior so they will ultimately buy more stuff from the company. For Amazon, its consumer products. For Disney, its toys and trips to the amusement parks. So, if you want to watch an intellectually stimulating drama, you can find it on a streaming platform. If, on the other hand, you want to go to the theater, you’re going to have to choose between Ironman 8 and The Fast and the Furious 17. Either way, Hollywood is changing and whether you believe it to be for better or for worse, one thing is abundantly clear: it’s all about the money.
Although a bit bleak, Fritz ends the book with this passage: “It’s now painfully clear that in the 2020s, the shrinking theatrical-movie business will belong to mega-franchises and every other facet of entertainment will belong to technology giants, or traditional Hollywood studios like Disney that are attempting to morph into them. There are no saviors; there is no going back.”