The Pendulum Swings

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I'm Matt Holzman with The Business Brief, a guide to what's happening in and around the business.

There's a power pendulum in Hollywood that swings between the studios and the people who actually make movies – directors, writers and actors. When the pendulum swings towards the creative people, you get The Godfather and One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest and even Star Wars. When the pendulum swings to the studios, you get You've Got Mail. But, when the pendulum swings to either extreme, it's bad for the business.

Like over the last decade, when outside money flooded into Hollywood and caused the pendulum to surprisingly swing to the creatives. It had the consequence of weakening the studio's ability to make smart decisions about what movies they should make and how much they should cost. If a star asked for an ungodly fee, if a producer wanted too big a budget, if a director wanted to make a movie nobody wanted to see, the studio's always seemed to say "yes." After all, it wasn't their money and they had plenty of it. And with the Dow sitting at 12,000 plus, the studios' corporate masters were generally too fat and happy to pay all that close attention.

And then, well you know what then. The recession, the money dried up, the Dow went down and suddenly even a $75 million movie doesn't seem like a trifle anymore. The studios finally found the leverage they've needed for a long time to "just say no!" On budgets and they seem to like hearing themselves say it. Sony recently shut down Steven Soderbergh's $60 million baseball movie Moneyball just days before the cameras rolled. Sony – the arguably the most profligate studio – shelved a movie starring Brad Pitt after they had already spent a reported $10 million on it. That just would not have happened five years ago. And it's just one example of how the pendulum has swung wildly back to the studios.

And that means a future filled with safe, formulaic, lowest common denominator movies; movies that are easy to sell to American audiences and have international potential. Expect a lot of super-hero movies, movies where things blow up, well-known franchises and broad comedies. But fear not, my fellow over-educated, thoughtful movie-loving public radio listeners.

Here's why. In the last 20 years, since the last time the ball was really in the studios' court, indie movies went mainstream. Every studio got into the indie movie business with their own mini-major studio – like Fox Searchlight and Paramount Classics. Theaters everywhere started to carry movies like Shakespeare in Love to Bend It like Beckham. And even in people St. Louis developed a taste for indie movies or indie-style fare.

But eventually, the increasingly bloated, banal studio version of indie film stopped working as a business model. There were too many of these kinds of movies, and they became too expensive to make and market to deliver kind of return the studios demanded. So, the mini-majors started to disappear even before the recession hit. And now that the big studios aren't making as many grown-up movies either, what's left? An appetite for these films, theaters that are eager to show them…and fewer being made.

See where I'm going here? Who will fill that void? I'm hoping that really, truly indie movies will be back. Inexpensive, challenging, artist driven movies that don't have to compete with watered down mini-major indie-style movies or pseudo serious star-driven studio movies like State of Play.

The thing is, great movies don't have to cost $200 million like studio blockbusters or even $20 million like a mini-major indie. The fact is that these days anyone with a camcorder and a Mac can make a movie.

The fascinating 2004 movie called Primer cost $7,000 to make and brought in $500,000 in theaters. That's a business model that may not work for the studio that made Transformers…but it works for pretty well for people who love thought-provoking movies like you and me, and even some people in St. Louis.

I'd love to know what you think. You can comment on today's thoughts or subscribe to the podcast at For KCRW, I'm Matt Holzman.



Matt Holzman