Spielberg and Lucas state the obvious, Hollywood is changing


Business models may be evolving, but the need for action against online piracy hasn’t

Unless you’re Rip Van Winkle, and as zombie-soaked Netflix binge viewers will attest, it’s become pretty clear that changes are afoot in Hollywood and beyond.  Now some of Hollywood’s biggest players are chiming in to confirm it.

During a panel on the Future of Entertainment at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. producer/director Stephen Spielberg grabbed headlines when he predicted there’d be a “meltdown” in the movie industry   Spielberg was joined on the panel by producer/director George Lucas and Don Mattrick, President of Microsoft’s Interactive Entertainment Business.   According to Variety, both filmmakers predicted a shift in Hollywood’s business model:

“They’re going for the gold,” said Lucas of the studios. “But that isn’t going to work forever. And as a result they’re getting narrower and narrower in their focus. People are going to get tired of it. They’re not going to know how to do anything else.”

Spielberg noted that because so many forms of entertainment are competing for attention, they would rather spend $250 million on a single film than make several personal, quirky projects.

Spielberg said that his own recent successful film “Lincoln” was almost an HBO project rather than a theatrical release and that in the future, such projects would most likely end up on TV, not in cinemas.  He added:

…there’s eventually going to be an implosion — or a big meltdown. There’s going to be an implosion where three or four or maybe even a half-dozen megabudget movies are going to go crashing into the ground, and that’s going to change the paradigm.

His comments do not really come as a surprise.  With the advent of VOD and other distribution options, more and more filmmakers, indie and established, are eschewing theatrical release and moving toward these new outlets.  Many view it as liberating.

top_of_the_lakeProducer/director Jane Campion’s recent 7 part mini-series, “Top of the Lake” that premiered in March on the Sundance Channel, (and is now streaming on Netflix)  typifies the trend–one that’s opened new creative avenues for filmmakers.  In an interview with Vulture.com earlier this year, Campion explained:

It goes back to being influenced by some very early brave television makers, like David Milch of Deadwood. I remember seeing that show and going, “Oh my God, they are making this on television?” It made me reassess my view of what was possible anywhere. It felt like they were able to be braver and have a dialogue with the audience which was a lot more vigorous in a way than with film, where it feels like you have to pander to the audience a bit more to get them out of their houses. There’s all these people sitting at home with their beautiful flat-screens already waiting for something exciting to happen. I thought I could have a place there. I could try, anyway.

As for Hollywood, the move toward bigger films guaranteed to bring in big bucks at the box office is nothing new.  As theater-going audiences know, the tried and true trend of sequels and blockbusters is where it’s at.  Niche films that have a dubious box office value are relegated to limited runs or bypass theatrical release altogether. Spielberg and Lucas’ remarks only confirm the obvious.  In his NY Times magazine piece last summer, “How Does the Film Industry Actually Make Money,” Adam Davidson explained:

People have predicted the demise of the film industry since the dawn of TV and, later, the appearance of VHS, cable and digital piracy. But Fabrizio Perretti, a management professor at the Università Bocconi in Italy, says that Hollywood is now actually destroying itself. Because it’s harder to get financing and audiences, companies are competing to make bigger, costlier films while eliminating risk, which is why ever-more movies are based on existing intellectual property. Eighteen of the all-time 100 top-grossing movies (adjusted for inflation) were sequels, and more than half of those were released since 2000.

With quality entertainment available at the touch of a remote in one’s living room, why bother with a movie theater at all?  George Lucas made this prediction:

You’re going to end up with fewer theaters, bigger theaters with a lot of nice things. Going to the movies will cost 50 bucks or 100 or 150 bucks, like what Broadway costs today, or a football game. It’ll be an expensive thing. … (The movies) will sit in the theaters for a year, like a Broadway show does. That will be called the ‘movie’ business.”

“There’ll be big movies on a big screen, and it’ll cost them a lot of money. Everything else will be on a small screen. It’s almost that way now. ‘Lincoln’ and ‘Red Tails’ barely got into theaters. You’re talking about Steven Spielberg and George Lucas can’t get their movies into theaters.

The small screen and VOD options are generating new viewing habits like binge-viewing and time shifting and have created an increased demand for fresh, long form programming. While these changing business models will influence what we see, and where we see it, there are certain questions that remain–including what the impact of digital piracy will be?

Sunday’s season finale for HBO’s hit series “Game of Thrones” became the most widely pirated TV episode ever.  For some, the rampant piracy simply represents a sign of success, but can the same be said  for productions that don’t fall into the massive hit category?

For indie filmmakers, these emerging business models provide both promise and peril. As we move forward into this brave new world of cinema, we need to find a way to protect content creators from the ravages of digital theft.  To that end, the actual method of distribution doesn’t matter as much as a creator’s ability to reach an audience and earn a living.  If left un-checked, digital piracy will continue to undermine artists and audiences alike. Our brave new world of engaging VOD content risks becoming predictable and homogenous.

A “meltdown” as Spielberg called it, is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as what emerges is a vibrant model that fosters innovation, and is viable for audiences and creators alike. Filmmaking has always been a marriage of business and art, but as hearings on copyright reform in Congress approach, let’s hope lawmakers understand that no matter the business model, artists remain at the core of our creative culture, and theirs are livelihoods are worth protecting.