The Big Picture

By Ben Fritz

The Big Picture is a timely book. Perhaps too timely. It tells the story of the changes that have taken place in the movie business over the last ten years. The upshot of all of which is this: the major studios are no longer interested in making mid-list, risk-taking films on adult or dramatic subjects but instead are only kicking out big-budget and high-profit branded franchise films tied to popular comic books, theme park rides, and toys.

The stats don’t lie: “Of the top fifty movies at the global box office between 2012 and 2016, forty-three were sequels, spinoffs, or adaptations of popular comic books and young-adult novels.” Five of the remaining seven were family animation films. “Today, anything that’s not a big-budget franchise film or a low-cost, ultra-low-risk comedy or horror movie is an endangered species at Hollywood’s six major studios.”

Why has this happened? Television series have replaced the mid-budget dramas, and the big franchise films have sucked up all the media oxygen and cultural buzz, providing the familiarity of comfort food in troubled times. It is also the result of the lowering of the age demographic for moviegoers, which began in the 1970s and has been continuing its descent ever since. The adults left the room long ago, leaving only children, teens, and “kidults” behind. And finally, we can see it as part of a larger transformation in the economy, the movement away from the local to the global, with an attendant hollowing out of the middle-class. The winners take all. Either become a monopoly (a franchise) or go home. “The biggest change over the years is just how poorly mid-budget dramas now perform when they aren’t hits.” These can now “come and go unnoticed, as if [they] never existed.” It’s become a zero-sum game.

I think any moviegoer will have been aware of these developments. Indeed, they have been hard to miss. Today’s most popular movies are slickly produced and boast incredible production values but are almost totally bereft of originality or creativity. This makes Fritz’s book all the more essential reading.

As a business story, The Big Picture concerns itself with the fall of Sony Pictures, which missed the bus on this transformation, and the rise of Disney, owners of the Star Wars and Marvel franchises. Disney is the model Hollywood studio and have established the basic template for success:

Disney doesn’t make dramas for adults. It doesn’t make thrillers. It doesn’t make romantic comedies. It doesn’t make bawdy comedies. It doesn’t make horror movies. It doesn’t make star vehicles. It doesn’t adapt novels. It doesn’t buy original scripts. It doesn’t buy anything at film festivals. It doesn’t make anything political or controversial. It doesn’t make anything with an R-rating. It doesn’t give award-winning directors like Alfonso Cuarón or Christopher Nolan wide latitude to pursue their visions.

Though Disney still has flops, it has fewer than other studio – fewer than anyone ever dreamed was possible in a business that has for decades seen more failures than successes and has been compared to riding a roller coaster. Disney has, in short, taken a huge chunk of the risk out of a risky business.

Many in Hollywood view Disney as a soulless, creativity-killing machine that treats motion pictures like toothpaste and leaves no room for the next great talent, the next great idea, or the belief that films have any meaning beyond their contribution to the bottom line. By contrast, investors and MBAs are thrilled that Disney has figured out how to make more money, more consistently, from the film business than anyone ever has before. But actually, Disney isn’t in the movie business, at least as we previously understood it. It’s in the Disney brands business. Movies are meant to serve those brands. Not the other way around.

I think all of this is well observed, and Fritz’s book is highly recommended to anyone with an interest in what is happening to movies in our time, both as a business and as a form of art and personal expression. But to return to where I began: is this only a snapshot of a fad, or a real trend?

With the rise of alternative “studios” like Netflix and Amazon, not to mention international players, things could still spin off in interesting new directions (a possibility Fritz entertains). But more than that, might there not be a point of franchise fatigue? This book came out just before the release of several franchise blockbusters in the summer of 2018: Deadpool 2, Solo: A Star Wars Story, and Jurassic World: Falling Kingdom. All of these movies made money (they could hardly not), but even fan bases were unenthused. Disney has a winning formula now, but I don’t think they can ride it forever. This too shall pass and a new paradigm will take its place. I just wouldn’t want to bet that what comes next will be anything better.

Review first published online June 16, 2018.

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