I can trace the moment when I noticed that what seemed like normal was changing—that the ways we’d always done things since time immemorial (at least in the three decades since I came to Hollywood) were beginning to become obsolete. It was the death of what I now call the “Old Abnormal” and the birth of the “New.”
I call them the Old Abnormal and the New Abnormal because Hollywood, let’s face it, is never actually normal. Think of how bizarre the people are, for starters. Famous hairdressers, notable Israeli gunrunners, Russian gangsters, mothers who score on their daughters’ successfully leaked sex-tape escapades, and Harvard grads who chase hip-hop stars and Laker Girls make a unique kind of melting pot. It boasts smart people galore with and without prestigious diplomas, and loves a craven con man with a new angle, a new pot of gold or a new look. It’s an equal-opportunity exploiter of talent.
No wonder it draws such dysfunction: Lying is a critical job skill; poker is as good a starter course as film school. How else would you know that the line “Sandra Bullock wants to do this” really means “It’s on her agent’s desk,” and “Three studios are bidding on this script” means “Everyone’s passed but one buyer who hasn’t answered yet.” The language has a sublanguage, and there is no libretto. It’s just plain Abnormal, and always has been.
I saw that some key aspects of the abnormal Hollywood I’d come to love, or at least enjoy heartily, were changing into something new, but of course I didn’t know what. It was when the long-stable Sherry Lansing/Jon Dolgen administration of Paramount, where I was working in 2001, began to teeter a bit as I was making How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, a romantic comedy starring Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey about two players playing each other and losing the game but unwittingly winning love.
Forty-eight at the time, Sherry Lansing was tall and effortlessly glamorous, one of the few women in Hollywood whose face and body had never seen a needle or a knife. The first chairwoman of a major studio, she shattered a glass ceiling in 1992 that hasn’t been mended since. Mentored by men and a mentor to women, she is that rare combination of a man’s woman and a woman’s woman at the same time.
Dolgen and Lansing were a great duo: She was class, he was crass. While Dolgen’s screaming could be heard throughout the administration building, no one would ever get bad news in Sherry’s office. (She had employees for that.) Dolgen’s belligerence was as famous as Sherry’s graciousness. The whole thing worked for them for a long time.
Sherry had been a big supporter of my little romantic comedy—she loved the script I’d developed with her team, and that helped me get it into production. But much to my surprise, it turned out that Paramount wasn’t even paying for the movie. My real financier was a lovely guy named Winnie, who ran a German tax shelter. I found this out on the set when Winnie introduced himself to me and told me that Paramount had sold off their domestic and international box office rights to him to fund the relatively low cost of the movie ($40 million). Paramount kept only the DVD rights. But that, I understood, was how they often put together their movies, selling off the ancillary rights to keep their production costs down. This is called risk aversion. It either meant they thought the movie had no upside other than its DVD value, or that it was the only way Sherry could get the movie made at the time.
As the rest of the country veered from red alerts to orange alerts in the aftermath of 9/11—Variety headline: “Showbiz Rocked by Reel Life!”—I was absorbed in simpler problems, like casting a guy for Kate Hudson to lose in ten days. As rocked as we may have been—and we were rocked—the show must go on. I was going into production. But in the boardrooms and executive suites of Viacom, which owns Paramount, everything was getting very unsettled in a consequential way.
The year 2001, as we began the movie, turned out to be a profoundly transitional one, not just for America (and the world, in the wake of 9/11), but for the movie business as well. Looking back, it would seem that Paramount had been looking through the wrong end of the telescope, in keeping only the DVD rights in its sights and ignoring the world. It was the year of the first Harry Potter and the first Shrek, and the audiences were getting their first exposure to the brave new world of breakthrough special effects in CGI and animation. But the historical fiscal conservatism of Paramount meant they were ignoring most of the new special-effects-oriented scripts, created for this startling technology, starting to hit the town.
Paramount had a philosophy under Sherry Lansing and Jon Dolgen, and for a long time it had worked: Sherry chose pictures by following her gut, and then would make them for the lowest possible budget (and lower). She’d made Forrest Gump (giving Tom Hanks and director Robert Zemeckis a big piece of the profits in success, but little in up-front fees). She green-lighted Mel Gibson’s Scottish epic and Oscar winner Braveheart. When Fox went way over budget on Titanic and needed a partner to finish the film, Sherry was able to say yes by buying domestic rights (U.S. and Canada) based on an overnight read. But it wasn’t working anymore.
I felt plenty of tension on the studio lot from a string of recent flops1 and bad word on the street. Paramount’s not buying anything! They’re underbidding! Not bidding! Who’s getting fired? What the hell are they making? How to Lose a what? Everyone was smoking and speculating on the quad as always, but the joy of putting How To Lose a Guy together inured me to any drama behind the scenes.
But as our team made How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, the fate of Paramount and Hollywood was beginning to undergo—I don’t think it would be exaggerating to say—cataclysmic change. The studio that I had joined after six comfy, productive years at Fox was about to experience an enormous realignment due to both interior and exterior convulsions. Some studios had an easier time during the transition, because they were more prepared for the transformed landscape that lay ahead. Disney, for example, had revenue from its theme parks and cable and broadcast networks like ESPN and ABC, so it was variegated as a conglomerate and not dependent on its movie income. Fox was reaping profits from its wide international presence. As a global media company, it was aware early of the power of the global market and made the most of its international penetration in movies and in TV via its satellite network Star TV and its broadcast networks. Warner Bros. had its moneymaker, HBO, but had problems at the time as a result of its takeover by AOL (the squid eating the whale). The more a studio depended on the domestic movie business for its income, the harder the turn would be.
I think none had a hairpinier turn to make than Paramount, as they lost many and hustled many more overboard. Yet the New Abnormal that followed the convulsions has no better representative than the Paramount that emerged: Pictures are now chosen for reasons, we will see, based not on gut as in Sherry’s day—or David O. Selznick’s, for that matter—but on whether they are properties that can be marketed into international franchises. With Iron Man, Mission: Impossible, Transformers, and Star Trek all among its key international franchises, Paramount emerged from this long fray as a key player in the New Abnormal. And it all began to happen soon after Mr. Dolgen, the board at Viacom, and the rest of us were swept up in gale forces that weren’t unlike the tornado that took Dorothy into Munchkinland. For us in the movie business, we landed not in little Munchkinland, for sure, but in giant Franchise-land. The New Abnormal.
In the past ten years or so, the studios have tried to patent a formula for surefire hits, and their product is filling your multiplex. They are what the industry calls “tentpoles”: sequels, prequels, reboots. Origin stories with a brand-new cast like The Amazing Spider-Man, with Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone, and X-Men: First Class, in which James McAvoy plays the young Charles Xavier from the original X-Men; or brand-name multimillion-dollar megashots built on familiar properties like comic books (The Avengers, the Dark Knight trilogy, Spider-Man, Thor, Captain America, Green Lantern), or best-selling novels (à la The Hunger Games, Harry Potter or Twilight, and now Fifty Shades of Grey); remakes (Planet of the Apes, The Thing); fairy tales (Alice in Wonderland and its spawn, Snow White and the Huntsman and the failed twin Mirror Mirror); and video games (Assassin’s Creed, Call of Duty, World of Warcraft). Handheld games born as iPhone apps like Angry Birds are now becoming properties-cum-movies, as are board games based on books (like Jumanji), or just plain games (like Hasbro’s Battleship); and, of course, toys (Transformers, G.I. Joe). (Hasbro is a movie company as well as a toy company now.) These properties are meant to work with or without a star and have a built-in audience in the United States and overseas. They are developed inside the studios’ development factories, designed by committee for surefire success.
A tentpole movie was once merely the stanchion that held the yearly studio circus calendar together: Big Christmas Movie. Big Easter Holiday Break Movie. Big Summer Movie. Each studio built what it called its “slate”—its compilation of yearly pictures—around these seasons because the greatest attendance was garnered during these distribution periods: Kids were out of school; families went to movies together; teens went in gaggles to malls. Business drove business drove business. If one theater was full, you would go to another, then return the next day for the movie you’d planned to see. Blockbusters and family movies were designed to position each studio to win each of these seasonal races like a studio Olympiad, and, like the Missile Defense System under Reagan, they had no cost-containment quotient. Win at all costs.
Around ten years ago, there was only one, at most two, tentpole from each studio each distribution season. But then things started to change. Inexorably, in the transition to the business model of the New Abnormal, the studios have grown their slates into a diet of pure tentpoles, with almost nothing in between. We producers fight for the precious diminishing space you could justifiably call the “in-between.”
So the question is, with all these tentpoles, franchises, reboots and sequels, is there still room for movies in the movie business?
As we noticed in Oscar Season 2013, it is still the Old Abnormal for some: That is, movie stars like Ben Affleck and George Clooney, who made Argo—an original—and super-AAA directors like Steven Spielberg (with Lincoln) and Ang Lee (with Life of Pi) still get to make real movies, and thank heaven for it. Though the money is still tighter than before, the studios don’t like to say no to these people. When they can’t get them to make tentpoles, which they always try to get them to do—remember George Clooney in Batman? Or Ang Lee directing The Hulk, and of course Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy—the studios will work with the stars’ agendas and help finance their best projects. After Kathryn Bigelow won the Oscar for The Hurt Locker (which made practically no money even after it won the Oscar), Sony financed her Zero Dark Thirty, and it is a commercial and critical success.
So James Cameron can make anything he wants; ditto Christopher Nolan and now Ben Affleck and George Clooney. The same is true of many others, whose mere participation in a movie makes it a marketable tentpole. Some studios will beg, borrow, or whittle down a budget to make these movies—and the audience is the better for it, so starved are they for fresh material. We need more movie stars who can produce and direct, and directors whose movies become Oscar-winning blockbusters. Can we live on this fancified diet alone? And will the trend thrive, or is it a temporary reaction to a starved domestic audience? And what of the rest of us, living off of Mt. Olympus?
This is one of the most significant differences between two eras—the Old Abnormal, roughly the 1980s through the early start of the decade, and the New Abnormal, from roughly 2008 on—though some forces began to congeal earlier. I have come to see these two eras as almost two different movie businesses. The differences are various, from what movies are produced to how we make them and for whom. The proliferation of giant franchises nearly year-round is both a sign of the end of the Old Abnormal and the imprimatur of the New Abnormal. The dearth of movies that used to fill the time between them is part of the collateral damage from the transition.
These huge tentpoles, $200-million-fueled missiles, are lined up on the studio distribution pads with their “must-have” famous names and launched like international thermonuclear devices toward foreign capitals where 3D is candy. International has come to be 70 percent of our total revenues in the New Abnormal. When I began in the Old Abnormal it was 20 percent.
The great great tentpole squall of May of 2011 was a dramatic—if breathless for those of us with XX chromosomes—example of an in-between movie (one not designed for a summer release date) being tossed into a rough sea of big action movies: Judd Apatow’s female comedy Bridesmaids, directed by Paul Feig, was being marketed on Apatow’s successful boy/girl friendly brand. It was a movie with no stars to speak of, no preawareness, starring all women, and likely to do bupkis abroad.
What was the strategy? It was clearly counterprogramming for women. But was it also an attempt to throw chick flicks overboard into Thor’s wake to prove that women’s movies couldn’t swim with the sharks? It was the kind of summer that featured what I think of as “Man” movies—movies with titles that either contain the word “man” or at least feasibly could: X-Men: First Class, Thor and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides; all we were missing were Iron Man and Batman. How were four unknown (outside of television) women going to compete in this company?
This was the reality that Bridesmaids faced on its May 13 release date. The weekend before, May 6, a sister romantic comedy, Kate Hudson’s Something Borrowed, was flattened by the one-two punch of Fast Five and Thor. Still performing wildly overseas and at home, the fifth installment of the drag racing franchise, now featuring the brilliant addition of popular action star and former wrestling icon Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, racked up $32 million in its second week. At the same time, Thor opened at a huge $65.7 million. Hiring “Shakespearean” Kenneth Branagh gave this Marvel silliness all the gravitas it needed to track well with what Hollywood marketing likes to call “older men”: men over twenty-four. (Not just women get ageist angst around here.) It was bringing in every male everywhere and their dates. Via genius marketing, Thor had become a date movie! By the next weekend, Bridesmaids’ opener, it looked like Thor’s thunderous second weekend would trample Bridesmaids just as it and Fast Five had buried Something Borrowed.
If it performed as the tracking numbers suggested—between $15 million and $17 million—chicks were done for. Movies in the summer were expected to make $30 to $60 million on opening weekend to compete. Bridesmaids, made for a fraction of the cost of a normal summer movie, wouldn’t have to reach this blockbuster bar. But it couldn’t just fizzle out. How did this potential extinction come to pass? It’s like we all went to sleep one day in Hollywood and woke up living in Tentpole City.
There is obviously more at stake here than bloody (well, not bloody, unfortunately for sales) chick flicks. The question really was, can the original movie with a good story get made for its own sake in today’s Hollywood, as it could when I started? Could I get The Fisher King made with Terry Gilliam (the phenomenally talented and eccentric director of movies like Brazil, Monty Python and the Holy Grail and 12 Monkeys) and the best script I ever had? (Ha! No way!)
When the late, great producer Laura Ziskin was asked by the Hollywood Reporter which of her great movies before Spider-Man she couldn’t get made now—including the Kevin Costner political thriller No Way Out and Julia Roberts’s seminal breakout hit, Pretty Woman, she answered, “None of them.”
MOVIES THAT WOULD NEVER GET MADE IN THE NEW ABNORMAL
(EXCEPT AS TINY INDIES WE WILL CALL “TADPOLES”)
Field of Dreams
Pitch: It’s about a guy who builds a baseball field in Iowa to bring back his dead dad. Pass.
Pitch: A totally stupid, nice guy travels all over the world, selling shrimp and running into famous people as he looks for his screwed-up girlfriend—who is kinda over him, if she was ever into him. Outta here.
The Fisher King
Pitch: A homeless man finds redemption for a radio shock jock. Can I get back to you on that? At Sundance?
Driving Miss Daisy
Pitch: A happy and wise chauffeur in the South has an endearing relationship with his elderly charge. Exactly how “elderly” are we talking?
The Big Chill
Pitch: A reunion of sixties best friends celebrating their dead bestie. So, wait, is it actually set in the sixties?
Pitch: A returning college graduate has an affair with the wife of his father’s law partner and runs away with her daughter. Are you French? Or, Um, okay, we’re not making Swedish movies here, unless they’re by Stieg Larsson.
Pitch: An unlucky widow falls in love with her fiancé’s brother. Romantic magic ensues. You lost me at “widow” and nearly killed me at “romantic magic.”
I could go on, but it just gets increasingly obvious and depressing that the more we love the movie, the less likely it would get made now, at least in the studio system.
Everything was off-the-charts Abnormal, and we were still trying to play a game that wasn’t playable anymore. It was a weird, changing, Darwinian time. Conditions were changing as fast as I could figure them out, and then would change again. Movies are now an endangered species in the very place that makes them. My son Oly, who now works as a literary manager at 3 Arts, echoed the sentiment: “Making a movie because it’s good is so 2003, Mom.” It struck me that risk taking itself was at stake. Hollywood, a town built by mavericks and rebels and mobsters, risk takers all, had now become utterly risk-averse. The very fact that a broad comedy like Bridesmaids—best friends coping with one’s wedding, accompanied by actual pooping in a sink—had fallen into the category of risk taking was a sign of extreme distress.
This change in no way seemed temporary. It was strange and difficult in a systemic way that was killing producers and writers who weren’t on the studios’ new, hardwired agenda. When and how did this happen exactly?
We all knew that the studios had been pleading poverty for a while—since DVD sales had begun collapsing in the wake of the technological changes that brought piracy and Netflix et al. But who really believed their sob stories? They were studios, for crying out loud! If they were so poor, why were they making more wildly expensive movies and fewer of them? It seemed counterintuitive.
But there they were, right before us, the rules of a New Abnormal that could be easily discerned—a formula that every studio seemed to be following, and one which sometimes worked like gangbusters: The top seven movies in 2011 were all sequels (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows 2, Transformers 3, Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn 1, The Hangover 2, Pirates 4, Fast Five and Cars 2). The model for all of this in the movies was Star Wars,2 from which George Lucas sprung six original movie blockbusters, including sequels, an origin story and sequels to the origin story. Comic-book writers had been doing this for years.
The studios took the formula and ran with it. They were shooting the moon, and often they hit the target. And when they hit, they hit big. But how and when did they figure all this out? And what, exactly, did they figure out? There seemed to be three key components:
1. You must have heard of the Title before; it must have preawareness.
2. It must sell overseas.
3. It should generate a Franchise and/or Sequel (also a factor of 1 and 2).
What is the difference between a tentpole and a franchise? A franchise is the point of a tentpole: The first movie must make enough money to justify a sequel. If the sequel performs well enough, then you have another and another and voilà—you have a franchise. One wildly successful version is the aforementioned Fast and the Furious, which didn’t have a famous title to begin with, but has no signs of reducing velocity after five installments. Another is Pirates of the Caribbean—based on a ride at Disneyland and Disneyworld—which is on its fifth iteration. Transformers, based on the alien car toys from Hasbro, has had three big hits at the bat and is still a player. Harry Potter, needless to say, had all the material for its sequels when Warner Bros. bought the property, and is, tragically for Warner Bros., now finito.
Back in the Old Abnormal, I used to make up movies with my favorite writers and pitch those ideas to the studios. If an idea was funny, fresh and could potentially attract talent (read: stars or A-list director) it could mean a sale. I used to be able to buy a book that had sold under a million copies and adapt it to sell to studios just because it had a great story. No more.
It was clear from talking to peers and executives that much, much more than the chick flick was on the ropes. Comedy was in trouble. It was dire for drama. But above all, it was the movie itself: the original one-off, nonsequel, nonremake, noncomic-book-franchise piece of business. That’s what I have come to realize. This isn’t about self-interest, my changing career, or what I can or can’t get made anymore; this is about an industry that for more than half a century has been the caretaker of an indigenous art form possibly relinquishing responsibility for that art form altogether. Sure, it was always show business, never show art. But now it is business business. More and more, the Oscars are dominated by the independents. The studios seem to wake up once a year, don their finest and collectively remember what they are making isn’t product or money, but film. Then they do a contrite walk of shame in the morning, and have amnesia by lunch. Movies are now an endangered species here.
The process by which this came to be is the knot that I will attempt to unravel in this book. This is a body-blow-by-body-blow account of what happened here during the past ten years that so fundamentally changed the movie business and where we are headed from here. People I started with in the business, classic producers and writers, look at me and then stare up into the sky. Why is it so different? Why has it become bone-crunchingly hard and so much less fun?
At least I can pin down one thing. It’s one small step for womankind and the one-off nonsequel movie if Bridesmaids can open in this sea of testosterone and doubting Thomases. And I wasn’t alone in my rooting.
Everyone in town reads the “tracking reports” like handicappers read the Daily Racing Form, but you should have seen the novice female screenwriters trying to figure out how to interpret the hieroglyphics two weeks before Bridesmaids opened. These daily and weekly reports are done by well-known outside market research firms as well as the marketing departments of the studios, and they are compared and averaged for outliers, similar to election polling. They measure “definite interest” in seeing a movie, “first choice” (i.e., “What do you want to see most this weekend?”) and “awareness” of the movie (“How many of you know it’s out there?”).
At first Bridesmaids tracked well. Then it seemed to “flatten,” which means it didn’t go up, even though they added TV spots. This stumped everyone. I checked in with my trusted source and colleague, Kevin Goetz, Hollywood’s go-to market research guru in times of crisis.
Kevin Goetz is a marketing research legend, one of those guys many of us trust with interpreting the numbers and making the wise calls on inside-Hollywood baseball. He’s been with most of the top market research companies, and I’ve had the pleasure of working with him on the research testing of almost all my movies. He is cherubic-looking, well liked and cutting-edge. You want him in the trenches when you need to figure out how to fix your picture or your marketing message, when your tracking—as with Bridesmaids—suddenly stalls out.
As I drove to work Thursday of opening week, I called Kevin: “So, Kev, how’s Bridesmaids going to do this weekend?”
“Looks like it could be as low as fifteen. Could go high teens, if it picks up some big buzz from word of mouth. They came on strong but then they stalled, and nothing seems to be happening right now.”
This is what all the prognosticators were saying.
“Nothing?” I asked, then added, “Call me if you see any buzz picking up as we get closer.” God only knows what prevented me from bumping into the car in front of me. All the buzz was the same—and it wasn’t good.
In Hollywood, “buzz” is a semitechnical term that means “everyone is talking about this.” It can result from a multitude of things: word of mouth, great reviews, sudden media attention, a spike in tracking or an amazing television spot that clicks with the audience. There can also be bad buzz, but that’s another thing: Everyone was saying that John Carter—the sci-fi fantasy flop—would be terrible months before anyone had seen a frame. Gigli—starring then couple Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez—provoked barely suppressed giggles around the globe even before it opened to no business whatsoever. That is bad buzz.
But good buzz is hard to predict and hard to generate, especially in a noisy summer market full of highly expensive advertising. Who knew what the buzz on Bridesmaids would be? It would have to be money to compete against the oncoming thunderous Thor.
My gal pals and I were placing wagers and consulting fortune-tellers and doing our own preawareness grassroots marketing. On the night the movie opened, I organized a small army with my dear girlfriend screenwriter Kiwi Smith (Legally Blonde). If I’m defined by Hello, He Lied because the title of my last book displays my cynicism, she’s defined as “Kiwi Loves You” because her Twitter handle shows her refusal to see the dark side. We’re a good team. Curly haired, slightly haywire, yet seductive to every gender, Kiwi is an ardent cheerleader for girl power.
Kiwi sent a rallying message to her entire email list that was so infectious, I sent it to my buddy Rebecca Traister at Salon.com, where it then did its social-networking proliferating thing. Kiwi was already a mentor and cottage industry to many young writers, and the thousands on her list reached out to their thousands to help us create a little femme-movie-ment. We convened a concerned (read “panicked”) group of female writers, studio execs and actresses to meet first for dinner and drinks and then head to the ArcLight Hollywood theater on Sunset Boulevard, where we would meet with, we hoped, a larger group of female industry friends. Over dinner, texts were flying in from Kristen Wiig’s manager that the matinees on the East Coast were “way overperforming expectations!” She knew that her client’s life was about to change. At that point, Kristen was known nationally as part of the Saturday Night Live ensemble, but opening a movie would transform her career. Some of us veterans knew that overperforming matinees meant Friday night would be even better, Saturday more so. We started to throw back tequilas.
A gaggle of us, now tipsy, padded into the lobby, greeting flocks of other women and girls, until we found ourselves in a theater filled with—hallelujah, is this happening?!—“event-movie” electricity. Amid the raucous groups of girls (apparently we weren’t the only ones who had this “get drunk with your GFs and go see Bridesmaids” idea) were an amazing number of guys—almost half the theater. In delighted shock, we smiled and waved to them. “We love you, Bridesmaids guys!”
By Monday morning (May 17, 2011) the number was $24.5 million, $10 million more than was predicted. The fact that the numbers kept going up over the weekend meant that the word of mouth was great. Women had a hit. We claimed this as ours. We gave thanks that night that a genre had possibly survived.
This meant something big.
When an inexpensive ($32.5 million) original movie starring barely known women from television, whose stillborn death was predicted by all, survives and has legs in the hostile concrete jungle of noisy sequels and reboots, it is a cause célèbre. We felt this way about The Help, The Town, The Fighter and Black Swan, and about Argo and The Silver Linings Playbook this past year. We just want more original movies made because they are good. Because they are funny or smart and are being made by talented people. Where are they? Why are they so rare?
Why do movies like the first Hangover and Bridesmaids so surprise the studios? They are both classic high-concept ideas, which was the coin of the realm of the Old Abnormal. The Hangover is about four best friends at a bachelor party who get wasted and lost in Las Vegas and wake up in a hotel room with Mike Tyson’s tiger and no groom. They have to find him and get him back in time for his wedding. It was something that would have sold in a comedy pitch by two writers in baseball caps. But now, in the New Abnormal, these movies that get made for under $40 million with no stars are the counterexamples, what the industry calls “lightning in a bottle.” When they work, it seems like magic. But it’s not magic. These writer-created original movies are simply funny. Finding them requires judgment, intensive script development, discerning writer and director choices and good casting—craft, in other words. Then unknown, the stars of The Hangover were paid under a million dollars for the first movie. Now each star can get a movie green-lit on his own and is getting $15 million for The Hangover Part III.
On the Monday morning after the astonishing first weekend of Bridesmaids (Hangover’s twin sister—four unknown women in a high-concept comedy), everybody was knocked on their collective asses, and as is common with paradigm shifts, many things happened.
The first thing that happened was that Kristen Wiig became a star.
Second, Melissa McCarthy, of CBS’s Mike and Molly, who gave a breakout performance in the movie, became its second new star and is now toplining comedies.
Third, chick flicks were getting a second look all over town.
Fourth, 50,000 R-rated female buddy comedies showed up on managers’ desks. However, it was a temporary reprieve. Much to our consternation, it did not presage a resurgence of chick flicks, romantic comedies, or even four-women buddy comedies. The success seemed to affect only the stars.
When an original comedy like The Hangover, a great idea with no preawareness and no huge stars, works so well—becoming a wildly successful sleeper hit that then spawns a sequel and perhaps a franchise—it could create a model that allows for other ideas like Bridesmaids to get made. And then movies like Bridesmaids allow for crazy, funny, broad movies to get a second look. I went to discuss this thought with pal Kevin Goetz, who had warned me of the industry’s low expectations for the opening weekend of Bridesmaids.
We sat down to lunch at the South Beverly Grill, which has the best crab cakes in town. I wanted to razz him a little about Bridesmaids, but I also wanted the benefit of his insight. “Why do you think Bridesmaids overperformed? Don’t you think it reflects a hunger for originals out there?”
“I think there was some late word of mouth on the picture that the tracking never picked up.”
“But look, Kev,” I shot back, “there were fifteen comments on the blogs this morning about sequel fatigue—these movies that are made for two hundred million dollars that are basically built for international. The movie stars won’t be in them. They realize they’re basically making product. Nobody comes to America to be a star in Russia and China. Who wants to be in that business? Penélope Cruz left Spain to be a star here, not in China. Eventually, these monstrosities of product will become burdensome for the actor to reboot, if not the studio. They will have to turn into Law & Order: a new cast each time, and a product where the title is bigger than the star.”
Kevin smiled. “They don’t need stars in Russia and China. They don’t care about them.”
I started to get it. So they can invent stars for tentpoles, pay them less up front and tie them in to infinite options for sequels, like with Chris Hemsworth in Thor. The franchise is the star and the movie already costs a fortune.
Kevin answered slyly, “I think both of us know that the reason to cast Chris Hemsworth as Thor originally had nothing to do with his numbers internationally.”
And it was clear as a bell. “But now he has huge international numbers that allow him to make the other movies he wants.”
This is what happens when the title is more important than the star, like with the James Bond franchise. And this is the reason for reboots: If they start over, they don’t have to keep upping the salary of the lead.
Kevin said, “The studios are in the branded carnival business. Their job is to make amusement park rides.”
“Really?” I asked. “We’re in the amusement park business?”
He looked at me as if I were his very slow half sister visiting from Iowa. “Lynda. Never lose yourself. Don’t forget this: We’re in a business. If we can make six-hundred-forty-billion-dollar rides, why would we want to make two-hundred-forty-billion-dollar rides? It’s a business. Widgets.”
I have always known we were in a business, but making “widgets” had never occurred to me. I love movies, and a few $240 million rides had served me fairly well so far. The current contempt for that kind of profit struck me as deeply problematic.
This grand slam sensibility, along with the economic doom that caused it, has swiftly and fundamentally changed the culture we live in here in Tinseltown. I will show how in this section using some hyperbole, though not much.
CULTURE CHANGES OF THE NEW ABNORMAL
Casting in the Old Abnormal
Here’s a bad version that gives a good idea of what changed.
In the Old Abnormal, you could have a really substantial casting fight:
GUY EXEC: I would never fuck her.
HIS BOSS: How old is she? A hundred?
CHICK PRODUCER: (a laugh covering her alarm) I think she’s brilliant. But if you guys hate her . . .
FEMALE CASTING DIRECTOR: (changing the subject) What about Dude Z for the love interest? Marty just signed him for his next picture.
CHICK PRODUCER: He’s hot!
GUY EXEC: He’s so gay!
CASTING DIRECTOR: Do you mean literally?!
GUY EXEC: No, I just mean, like, he’s so gay, like I would never see a movie he’s in.
CASTING DIRECTOR: Let me send you some tape.
Casting in the New Abnormal
STUDIO HEAD: Who have you got for the guy?
DIRECTOR: I’ve been talking with Ray Liotta.
(Everyone stares at him as if he were from Mars.)
PRODUCER: He meant Robert Downey.
INTERNATIONAL MARKETING: He’s worth thirty in Asia alone since Iron Man.
(Studio Head smiles, relieved. Emotionally joins the meeting.)
GUY EXEC: He’s booked for two years. How’s that possible?
STUDIO HEAD: We’ll wait.
(Director sinks in his chair, emotionally departs meeting.)
INTERNATIONAL MARKETING: We break even before we open. Not counting Russia and China.
STUDIO HEAD: Who does? He’s great in Europe and Japan too. Let’s wait. We don’t need the picture this year.
(Producer emotionally departs meeting.)
DOMESTIC MARKETING: Who’s the girl? Hugh Jackman’s daughter?
PRODUCER: (to Studio Head) You want cheap, or you want to spend money?
GUY EXEC: Why don’t we get some Victoria’s Secret model and save the money for the effects?
DOMESTIC MARKETING: Cameron Diaz or Emma Stone. I want some humor on the marquee.
PRODUCER: But it’s a thriller.
DOMESTIC MARKETING: You make it, I’ll tell you how to sell it.
As I’ve illustrated, there were urbane and constructive conversations (pardon my nostalgic interpretation) in the Old Abnormal, wherein everyone had a say and some sort of creativity was the order of the day. We all understood that these things were subjective, and we took chemistry and age into account, as you can see.
In the New Abnormal version, the age range between Emma Stone (The Help and Superbad) and Cameron Diaz (Bad Teacher, There’s Something About Mary) is almost twenty years. Also note that there was no casting director in the room to point out that Cameron Diaz should play Hugh’s wife, not his daughter. Domestic and international marketing make these key decisions much of the time, unless Steven Spielberg, David Fincher, or some other directing god is at the helm.
In the Old Abnormal there was always a ballsy, smart casting director in the room, originally from New York, with pictures and data on credits and ages. Usually a “she,” she knew every New York actor, every director the actor in question had worked with and critical biographical gossip about the actor, not to mention a cheaper but great alternative for every part. At the studios now, her main function is simply to make the actors’ deals after they have been chosen. (There are still some great casting directors working hard with the A-list directors right now, discovering actors and making subtle choices. Thank God.)
In the Old Abnormal, when we were casting pictures based on casting criteria, she was a key part of the discussion. At least for one moment during our profane conversations, “chops”—actual acting talent—came up. Chops conversations are the art of casting, involving the nuances of various specific performances.
With good studio heads, chops were always important. With good directors, even more so.
STUDIO HEAD: Does he have any chops?
CASTING DIRECTOR: I never thought so, but I saw his screen test for Brokeback Mountain3 and he blew my mind. He was all over that part. He was depressed. He was subtle. He was big where he needed to be.
EXEC: But he didn’t get the part, did he? I found him wooden in Toy Story.
CASTING DIRECTOR: But he was playing a tin soldier. And it was animated.
PITCHES: A PRACTICE
Another Casualty of New Abnormal
Another casualty of the New Abnormal that forever changed the culture of Hollywood is the now-almost-extinct pitch meeting. Pitch meetings were the way we met and creatively played with one another; it was our commercial and social interaction—plus, there could be a prize at the end called a sale! With the studios’ New Abnormal abstinence policies in regard to development spending and lack of interest in original ideas, this custom, which was a huge part of our work and social life, is now gone with the cold wind. The entire content of the workdays of execs, producers and writers has changed with it.
When there was extra money in the system, we all spent much of our week collaborating on and then pitching new ideas for movies to the studios. Idea plus hot writer-producer equaled pitch equaled possible movie. But now, with their concentration on tentpoles for the international market, the studios know they are unlikely to find a “big title” in a pitch from a young writer with fresh ideas. Mattel and Marvel are better options.
In the Old Abnormal, studios vied for the hot new idea or writer they were hearing about from agents, and bidding wars sometimes broke out for them. (More gallows laughter.) Fifty percent of a producer’s job and 75 percent of a writer’s livelihood was a practice that subsided slightly and then finally stopped (with rare exceptions) in the aftermath of the 2008 writers’ strike. But pitch meetings were once the superfood of the life of Hollywood. They made the town interactive, personal and social, and flushed ideas in and out of its system and into the market.
I met most of the writers I know through pitches. Most of my Los Angeles social life comes from the past twenty years of pitches and scripts (and sometimes even movies!). Flashdance started as a pitch, and Dawn Steel, who helped get that movie made at Paramount, became my best friend and ally, and eventually made me a producer. I pitched over half of my movies to studios first as ideas with writers, including One Fine Day and The Siege. I remember making up One Fine Day: I was raising my young son at the time and thinking, The only way I am ever going to meet a guy is if I literally run into him on a field trip. So I pitched the idea of a single mother on a difficult day at work who misses her child’s field trip at the same time as a single dad does, and they chase the field trip around NYC together with their kids, falling in love—first to Michelle Pfeiffer, who became my partner, and then to Fox. We were all thrilled to cast George Clooney, who had to commute from the set of ER—which was only a problem the day he got a black eye at lunch playing basketball with the grips and I had to return him to L.A. with a shiner.
The Siege was based on a series of articles about the 1993 World Trade Center bombing in the New York Times by reporter Tim Weiner. I wondered what would happen to the civil rights of New Yorkers if a bigger threat stopped the city. I brought it to Ed Zwick, and we pitched it to Fox and Denzel Washington, as they had just made Glory together, for which Denzel had won his first Oscar. This is how we worked: Pitches were a vital life force of creativity that coursed through the bloodstream of the industry, pushing us to create new ideas with new minds. They stimulated the market, rendering the industry and each studio less of a bubble.
We got to know our generation and a younger generation. We got to know funny people and brilliant people. This was the fuel of development. A writer made a good living out of pitches that he sold that were never made. (But could have been, and might still be.) The studio now calls that fat. Writers called it a mortgage.
The absence of the pitch has radically changed the lives of all Hollywood execs, producers and writers. I imagine fewer dates, romances, marriages and partnerships, because that’s how all of us met! (Of course, there was no Match.com, so you had to actually meet.) Everyone has fewer projects stewing, and there are precious few opportunities to make up new ideas and collaborate with your new or best friends.
To take you back to the Old Abnormal, or to rare moments within the New:
A pitch meeting consists of a team composed of a producer and a writer (or multiple writers) and another team of studio executives led by an alpha, in whose office it takes place. The producer-writer team practices for weeks before the event—a transactional-theater-meets-ritualized-mini-cocktail-party, sans alcohol. The drink is always bottled water, and the writers wear baseball caps, while the producer (unless part of a comedy writers’ consortium) dresses up a bit more, in a nod of respect to the execs, and also to prove we can still afford couture.
The pitch has four stages:
THE PREP: The producer warms the room. There is much talk of family, dating, boyfriends, playoffs if the season justifies it, vacations and industry gossip (the harmless kind).
THE WIND-UP: The beginning of the segue into the idea. The wind-up is always led by the producer (or director if he or she is there) and prepares the execs for the tone of the pitch. It should contain a real or allegedly real event that is either autobiographical or ripped from the headlines that sets up the idea. Then the producer completes the brilliant segue, passing the baton to the writers.
THE CONCEPT: This is when the writers take over. They perform the theater bit of the pitch, which they’ve often memorized.
This is done in sketch format and is pretimed in rehearsal. The sometimes smiling, sometimes phlegmatic execs have short attention spans, and the moguls they in turn pitch to have even shorter ones.
THE WRAP-UP: This is the opportunity for the producer to lay out the way the movie fits into the marketplace, peppering it with examples of hot casting ideas and specific similar hits sampled for each studio. “It’s Tootsie-meets–Ocean’s Eleven!” Then you leave. Fast.
In the New Abnormal, whatever pitches are going in to the studios are accompanied by an array of materials: a reel of effects, a short film, a poster, a business prospective, or even a newly commissioned graphic novel. This is a virtual campaign the team must mount—out of pocket—to prove to the executive the commercial potential of the idea and its possible promotion strategies. Little is left to the imagination.
What the writer says is secondary to the campaign’s ability to hook the execs with its potential big bull’s-eye—its marketability. That is, if the team can get through the door in the first place.
Every so often in the New Abnormal, a studio decides they’re open to a pitch. (In June of 2012, studios bought two, one in multiple bidding! A cause célèbre worth reporting.) In 2009, the studios were taken with Liam Neeson’s Taken. (“They took his daughter. He has ninety-six hours to get her back.”) It grossed $145 million domestically and $82 million internationally, and it cost $25 million to make. This looked like a “model,” not a fluke. The studios put out the word that they were hungry for like-minded movies. It worked internationally, it worked domestically, it could be cloned, and Liam Neeson was cheap (then). The whole model could be done five hundred different ways and could be made for a reasonable price. After every conceivable family member was set up in an Insta-pitch (“They stole his mother. He has ninety-six hours to get her back.” “They stole her husband,” et al., ad infinitum). The first semi-iteration was released in 2011: Abduction, with Taylor Lautner (of Twilight fame, huge numbers internationally). It flopped, because it forgot to be about kidnapping his daughter or sister and was instead about something else too complicated to relay. While Taken 2, actually with Liam Neeson, was in production, it didn’t deter three thousand producers and financiers from trying to clone it every other way imaginable. The sequel was finally released by Fox and producer Luc Besson, who assumes ownership of the movie four years after its original release in October 2012. The original Taken budget was $25 million, and Liam Neeson was paid $5 million to make the film—whereas Taken 2 has an estimated budget of $80 million, and Neeson’s fee is “not reported,” which loosely translates to “so high the agent will not use it as a future ‘quote’ ”—i.e., precedent—for other pictures: a considerable multiple of $5 million. On the weekend of October 7, 2012, Taken 2 took in a huge $50 million domestic at the box office, the biggest weekend since The Dark Knight Rises. The former one-off thriller is certainly now a franchise for Fox, and every member of CIA agent Neeson’s (Bryan Mills’s) extended family will be kidnapped in Taken 3, 4, and 5.
The New Abnormal, with its fewer movies and pitch meetings, its tiny expense accounts, and its centralized buying in the executive and marketing suites, has transformed the jobs of execs, agents and producers, as well as the whole process of how movies are bought and developed. All the lively interaction that went on between execs and producers to generate alliances and commerce, all the dinners and power lunches, went kapoof! Where are they? What happened? How did the rocking glamour capital of the world end up with execs acting like nerds from Silicon Valley? What transformed the lifestyles of the rich and famous, or almost rich and striving to be famous? Every portal became a wall. Business went indoors, and the thrill of meeting new people, forging new alliances and making up movies with new friends every month was gone.
A DAY IN THE LIFE OF THE NEW ABNORMAL: ONLINE
While pitches haven’t been selling in the New Abnormal, a YouTube video by an unknown director can suddenly blow up on the marketplace, and there will be three studios bidding for it. (Without having yet met the director!) That would never have happened in the Old Abnormal, because there was no YouTube. Maybe execs are busy watching YouTube instead of hearing pitches. Our work is virtual.
The exec is in his office, surfing the net, between studio meetings. He can get everything online, even “content,” the New Abnormal word for material that eventuates on some device in the online universe. He gets his morning news on Deadline Hollywood, the compulsively read news blog that has replaced industry trades like Variety from the Old Abnormal. He checks into the Huffington Post for a sec. Then he goes to work, but not like we used to: He’s still online. He gets director and writer ideas for his projects from freely shared online lists compiled by a multitude of execs, while we used to make them up from scratch. They get other vital data online, like whose recently turned-in Disney script “tanked,” what director dropped out of what project, etc., via “tracking boards,” also online. None of this used to exist, since we had no computers to speak of. (Okay, maybe we had computers, but they linked to nothing.) We created our own directors and writers lists from analog books, which led to mistakes like pitching my bosses several writers who turned out to be dead.
The exec checks into the tracking boards—email groups on Yahoo! or Google or on coveted private email lists—written by assistants, junior execs, agents and their assistants, all of whom are privy to way more chitchat than I am. The tracking boards are like an industry “cloud” brain. The exec goes on the boards for gossip: Who is getting fired? Promoted? What sold yesterday? We used to speak on the phone to hear this stuff. Then the exec goes to IMDb, the definitive Web site for credits, and he goes to Google or Wikipedia for any development content–type info he needs for a meeting. He is online so much, he emails much more than he calls. A call starts to feel like an intrusion.
With fewer pitches to hear, he or she has more time to do ever more work online. Research! Look for books! New Young Adult (YA) vampire series! This is a treasure trove of great ideas. YA is where the Hunger Games and Twilight series came from. Why talk to people when there are graphic novel sites?! Who needs pitches?
One exception to this new model is Comic-Con, when the town empties for two days to promote its -Man movies and meet its fan-boys. Comic-Con has evolved from what was once a nerdy comic-book gathering to a huge, multimedia, star-laden promotional juggernaut for the fans, studios and gaming industry, where the next year’s blockbusters are teased, promoted and fanned out to an ardent and important base of critical raving-mad word-of-mouth monsters who can make or break the industry’s products. Everyone except me is in San Diego for two days.
And then there’s the Soho House, a club perfectly located at Doheny and Sunset—which would be the center of town if there were one—where people show off their new clothes and prove they are still alive; but alas, to get in, you must be a member. Even at the Soho House, if guests are not (barely) eating or at the bar, they are on their computers or checking their iPhones.
While online, the exec can study multiplatform systems! And search for new chicks to cast on OkCupid or Match.com! Speaking of Match.com, so much of the business transpires over email, it’s like dating, or what’s left of it. You could stay in your bedroom in your sweats and go online and work—or pretend you’re dating.
RARE MOMENTS WHERE OLD ABNORMAL AND NEW ABNORMAL MERGE
There are rare moments these days when things are suddenly the same as they used to be in the Old Abnormal. Of course, getting a green light is the same, as is the first day of production. But those are personal. There are times when we are all one dysfunctional family. Our traditional holiday, when we dress up like it’s New Year’s Eve and kiss each other on both cheeks and everyone comes out of the woodwork for good or for bad, is Awards Season. Then, for about a month’s worth of parties, we see all our crazy uncles in the Academy whom we haven’t seen since last year, or fired execs we forgot to call, or old frenemies, or the great face-lift a mogul’s wife is displaying for the first time in public. These parties are supposed to gain our votes for the intended honoree by feeding us hors d’oeuvres as the nominees or intended nominees spread their fairy dust on us. This has been going on, with various Academy rule changes regarding who foots the bill, since . . . well, forever.
At these moments we can feel much of the distinction between the Old Abnormal and the New Abnormal twinkle away in the presence of the stars; our sense of community and our optimism are reborn with each new season. It is indeed our New Year. We make resolutions. We drink. We kiss people we don’t like; we decide we like them after all. We make lunch dates.
“FRIENDING” IN THE NEW ABNORMAL
Over the last six months, my girlfriend Meredith (a talent agent at ICM, a blazing redhead with a toddler) and I have been trying to meet for lunch. So far, our efforts have been fruitless. Our assistants have exchanged 145 calls and 63 emails. Last week, we were on for 3 p.m., but I had to push to 4:30. She canceled. She rescheduled today. And I canceled: network notes call. This is the new relationship. The path to hell, my mother used to say, is paved with good intentions. Meredith and I are the New Abnormal. Is this why making movies isn’t as much fun anymore? I can’t even figure out how to have lunch with a girlfriend whom I actually want to see.
With so many people out of the office these days, timing is an increasingly difficult factor. I can’t tell if people are sick, having manicures, working out of Starbucks, watching their kids at soccer games, hiding in home offices or just so rich they are on satellite on a boat somewhere, but I have never seen more people out of the office. This is because lunches are no longer necessary. They have become a vestigial courtesy. The young and networking, many of whom are off expense accounts, will work key lunches in when necessary. But many lunch hours are now spent checking calls while having a yogurt with gummy bears at Pinkberry. I only meet with writers, financiers, directors, actors (and friends). And yet, I really want to see my pal and her baby for lunch.
Phone calls have been replaced by emails, conversation has been replaced by chitchat and getting to know someone has been replaced by checking out their clothes and shoes. What about work? When you used to submit a script, you’d receive a thoughtful response. There was a possibility of persuading the executive with your charm or your relationship or even your well-articulated argument about how you would address the notes given in the response. There was a process.
Today, with some significant exceptions, one only gets an email pass that says, “This doesn’t fit into our slate,” or, “We have no slot for this.” Case closed. It is rarely worth fighting back. Besides, if the exec gave notes, he might get a rewrite, and then he’d have to read it again, and chances are good that his studio’s mandate will have stayed the same.
Why cultivate a relationship if it doesn’t amount to anything, if you can’t persuade somebody? If being funny and charming makes no difference, you might as well just send emails. So there are strikingly fewer meetings and strikingly less charm.
I once said to my manager son that his clients were all incredibly good-looking. Oly said, “Mom, we don’t have time for charm. You have to just make a great first impression. People would rather see attractive people.”
Truthfully, I don’t know whether he actually said that or I just accused him of it and he laughed. The fact is, first impressions are increasingly important when people stop taking the time to get to know people. We used to spend fifteen minutes in every pitch meeting talking about families, sports, music or politics over fancy water. People don’t have time to do that anymore unless it works into the pitch. This is mostly in TV, where during pitch season there is no time for more than three minutes of fast and funny chitchat.
Finally, few execs have the power to say yes anymore. They only have the power to move a movie up the chain in tiny, tiny increments. What fun is it for the exec to have a long meeting, after which they have to say no—an outcome they knew before the meeting even started? Better to email.
In the Old Abnormal, when there were more slots to fight for with more money available, the exec could team up with you and really make a case for a borderline movie, a “maybe,” a script that everyone loved but wasn’t a bull’s-eye. Now the producer with an original movie who is fighting for one of these rare studio “slots” has to package it with a star or a director and that person’s manager (in exchange for a producer’s credit) to get any traction at the studio. They better make sure the star or director has a track record of big international numbers. The best way may be to skip the studios altogether. Or go to your parents, or take a run on some credit cards.
How did this happen? How did it become easier for someone who knows no one to make a movie for $150,000 than for someone who knows everyone to make one for $20 million? Or for a guy who last made a movie for $100,000 to make his next movie a superhero tentpole for $100 million? Nothing makes any sense. Battleships are falling from Mars. Tentpoles are launching and falling. No one knows what to make. What went wrong?
1. Vanilla Sky, Texas Rangers, Domestic Disturbance, Zoolander, Hardball, Rat Race, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Along Came a Spider, Down to Earth.
2. Star Wars: Episode IV—A New Hope (1977), Star Wars: Episode V—The Empire Strikes Back (1980), Star Wars: Episode VI—Return of the Jedi (1983), Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace (1999), Star Wars: Episode II—Attack of the Clones (2002), Star Wars: Episode III—Revenge of the Sith (2005).
3. Starring Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal; the story of a forbidden and secretive relationship between two cowboys over the years.
Tales from the New Abnormal in the Movie Business
Sleepless in Hollywood
Tales from the New Abnormal in the Movie Business
Over the past decade, producer Lynda Obst gradually realized she was working in a Hollywood that was undergoing a drastic transformation. The industry where everything had once been familiar to her was suddenly disturbingly strange.
Combining her own industry experience and interviews with the brightest minds in the business, Obst explains what has stalled the vast moviemaking machine. The calamitous DVD collapse helped usher in what she calls the New Abnormal (because Hollywood was never normal to begin with), where studios are now heavily dependent on foreign markets for profit, a situation which directly impacts the kind of entertainment we get to see. Can comedy survive if they don’t get our jokes in Seoul or allow them in China? Why are studios making fewer movies than ever—and why are they bigger, more expensive and nearly always sequels or recycled ideas?
Obst writes with affection, regret, humor and hope, and her behind-the-scenes vantage point allows her to explore what has changed in Hollywood like no one else has. This candid, insightful account explains what has happened to the movie business and explores whether it’ll ever return to making the movies we love—the classics that make us laugh or cry, or that we just can’t stop talking about.