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The New Abnormal In Movies: Why Charm Is Dead, Sequels, Reboots, And Marketing Moguls Rule (And The One Bright Spot)

Film and TV producer Lynda Obst explains what went so terribly wrong with movies in her new book, Sleepless in Hollywood. Here, she outlines four big reasons for the sea of warmed-over sameness that is studio filmmaking (and one reason the creatively driven film might survive).

In her new book, Sleepless in Hollywood: Tales From the New Abnormal in the Movie Business, movie producer Lynda Obst does something that is nearly impossible: She explains what has gone so insanely wrong with the movie industry in a way that is incredibly funny, smart, but most important, understandable to the average moviegoer.

This was intentional.

“I want people to understand why all of a sudden all the movies in their movie theaters are so similar. And why they are getting so many reboots and sequels,” Obst said over the phone recently. True to character, she was speed-inhaling on a cigarette as she spoke.

To write the book, Obst, who’s produced movies like One Fine Day and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, and TV shows like Hot in Cleveland, put on her reporter’s hat (before arriving in Hollywood, she was a reporter for the New York Times) “and went to the smartest people I knew.”

What she found out about, among other things, why we are on Fast and the Furious PART SIX, why Bridesmaids was the biggest fluke of the past decade, and why marketing heads are now as powerful as studio bosses makes for riveting stuff. Here, she riffs on five key observations about the New Abnormal in La La Land.

THE RISE OF THE MARKETING MOGUL

So without pre-awareness, the original movie will die. So that has given birth to the IP, which is what we used to call books. So anything with a really famous name, you know, Jell-O, Noah’s Ark, The Bible, Ice Age 6. Anything that is a reboot--obviously Spiderman, is going to be recognized and easier to market, even domestically. But more important, it’s going to be easier to market abroad. So without certain really brilliant marketing executives, movies like Inception and Bridesmaids that are one-offs--let alone movies like Silver Linings Playbook, will never get opened. So the marketing mogul is now as important as the studio head.

CASTING: THE LI BINGBING EFFECT

Bingbing Li in Resident Evil 5

We used to cast for gut. Who do we love? Who has chops? Who is talented? These old, ancient criteria have given way to who has foreign numbers? And more and more, you are going to be seeing Chinese costars--my new favorite being Li Bingbing, who’s costarring in Transformers 4 next to Mark Wahlberg. You’re going to see the rise of true, global stars that are not selected from our domestic--by domestic I mean American, English, and Australian--pool. Because the foreign box office is between 70% and 80% (of studios’ revenues), which is mind-boggling. When I started, it was 20%. And the Chinese market, which is now number 2, is predicted to be number 1 by 2020.

3-D AND IMAX ARE HERE TO STAY

Bollywood movie: Enthiran (The Robot)

We will be seeing many, many more 3-D and IMAX movies, which will kill the comedy, the drama, and the film that’s about writing and not razzle-dazzle effects. It’s what the global market craves, on the one hand. And on the other hand, indigenous global films are starting to do so well in their own market that the only American movies that can be made in America and transported are the ones with the phenomenal technology. For example, the biggest blockbuster in China recently was a local Chinese film that made a billion dollars, and it was kind of a local comedy. So why do they need our comedies? Bollywood is making romantic comedies. Why do they need our little dating customs? The Internet has replaced movies as a cultural carrier. So what they need from us is what only we can provide, which is this spectacular, Cameron-inspired technology. As an adjunct to that, we will not be seeing Chinese bad guys. They don’t like 'em. They don’t even like laundry hanging. So they have great cultural sensitivities as well. There’ll be more censorship.

THE DEATH OF THE POWER LUNCH

A, who has time? You’re online. There are hardly any phone calls anymore--it’s 7:1 in emails. And you can’t persuade anyone through charm anymore at a lunch. No one has any power at the level that you’re taking people to lunch. Maybe you can convince a star, maybe you can convince a manager, but you can’t convince a studio head. In the old days, you could convince an executive to take another look at a script. You could create a champion out of an executive. But these days, executives are intermediaries. And power is so concentrated that charm has dissipated as a force. It’s less fun. Money is charm. If you have a new hedge fund from China or from Wall Street, that’s charm.

YOUTUBE: THE NEW FILM SCHOOL

This is actually a positive result of the New Abnormal. . . . We have the eventual potential destruction of the gatekeeper through the technology that killed us--it may liberate us. What happened is, in this new structure, we have tentpoles and tadpoles. Giant movies and teeny, starved, good movies. But now the same technology that destroyed the DVD is giving us the ability to make movies on our iPhones and our iPads and distribute them through thousands of new distribution possibilities, from the proliferation of pay-TV outlets that are being birthed every day, to new opportunities in cable, to just releasing them on YouTube. So becoming a director or a writer-director is no longer the impossible proposition mediated through executives that it once was. So you can go from a hot, short video on YouTube to getting a studio movie in a year [like] Ricardo de Montreuil, who released a short called The Raven and it’s being made into a movie.

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3 Comments

  • Royalphin

    I was quite interested, then i read this,

    "Bollywood is making romantic comedies. Why do they need our little dating customs?"

    Lost all respect for the article.

    Bollywood has been making rom-coms for ages. It's not a new thing.

  • DwDunphy

    This is all good news for me. Knowing that all the movies that are coming are regurgitated cud, I neither have to get my hopes up nor spend my money. Thanks, Hollywood! You actually did me a solid by being so crappy.

  • Harkonnen

    Sounds like the "charm" that you are missing can be found on YouTube (a platform that anyone can use). In the meantime, we're getting more movies that have an international focus which is probably good for the US ("get to know your neighbors!).

    The only "downside" is that Hollywood insiders are less important.

    This actually sounds great! Also, I'd never heard of Li Bingbing before but now I am a big fan.

    Mission accomplished?