If you love movies and are still wondering why you have to wait until the last four months of the year to see the kind of movies you’ve always loved-let’s call them movies adults can watch and get something from-then the book you need to read is Lynda Obst‘s Sleepless in Hollywood: Tales from the New Abnormal in the Movie Business (Simon & Schuster, 283pp. $26).
Obst-whose previous Tinseltown-based tome is the brilliantly titled Hello, He Lied-has worked in the vaunted, valiant, violated industry for over 30 years. (The book’s title is a play on Sleepless in Seattle, which she produced, along with The Siege, Contact, Hope Floats and, currently for television, Hot in Cleveland.) She knows the tangled ropes. When there are ropes she doesn’t know, she knows the people to go to for explanations.
What prodded her into composing this follow-up volume was the realization a decade or so ago that the dizzying town with which she was familiar and which she designates the “Old Abnormal” was precipitously shifting into a baffling “New Abnormal.” It was an approach to movie-making no longer comfortable for someone racking up her successes in now obsolescing ways.
The revised paradigm she identified won’t surprise any film fan aware of the last decade’s blockbusters. She calls it “sequelitis,” and cites the Hollywood movies-Batman, Fast and the Furious et al-that appeal to the now highly developed international market. She dubs these “tentpole” movies-not a new designation, of course-and contrasts them with “tadpole” movies, about which more later.
What she understands and reports solemnly might be horrifying to many stateside movie-lovers. It’s that increasingly the rest of the world’s tastes are becoming at odds with domestic tastes. As the appeal of intended megahits here have begun to diminish-in large part because nowadays young men are more drawn to video games (we all know this, don’t we?)-audiences abroad are growing in their desire for the biggies.
To illustrate her bone-chilling-to many of us, at least-point, she includes figures brought to her attention by her pal Jim Gianopulos, chairman and CEO of Fox Filmed Entertainment. The information has to do with revenues taken in by the animated Ice Age franchise. She writes: “Jim reviews the numbers. The first Ice Age does $175 million domestically, $206 million internationally. The second one does $192 domestically, $456 million internationally. The third one does $300 million domestically and $700 internationally.” In a footnote, Obst adds, “The fourth one opened at $46 million domestic, with a global total of $385 million as of July 12, 2012.”
Yes, you read right, and since you did, you’ve drawn the conclusion that Gianopulos and Obst draw concerning the unavoidable Hollywood commitment to making movies for international ticket buyers despite what the moguls think American audiences want to see.
Obst goes further into how the L. A. deciders (and counterparts operating in New York City and elsewhere) reckon green-lighting any project. She refers to “quadrant-think” in regards to ticket sales. The four parts of this revenue pie are, on one side, the upper females (women over 24) and lower females, and on the other side, lower males (12-24) and upper males.
Needless to say, any moviemaker would like to snag all four quadrants, but the lower male quadrant has been the one most targeted in the last however many years-until that is, those confounded video games have eaten into profits. The female quadrants have been scanted, of course-until, that is, Bridesmaids and The Hunger Games threw cold water on some of the sleeping influential powers.
(As a side note, the Oscar-winning Jennifer Lawrence, whose Hunger Games appearance has been seminal, has now had her name appropriated for the kind of movie that will be made increasingly to cash in on the newly identified eager female patrons. Call Lawrence the modern age Joan Crawford or Barbara Stanwyck, if you remember who they are.)
Driving back and forth from studio to studio talking to friends like former Paramount head and unofficial First Lady of Hollywood Sherry Lansing, the worried, curious Obst rounds up all sorts of enlightening facts and factoids about a town that at the moment is dominated as much (or more) by the marketers as it is by studio heads. Indeed, marketers are increasingly becoming studio heads.
And much of what Obst learns and what she encounters when attempting to launch the kind of currently out-of-favor romantic comedies she’s made her niche has resulted during the last several years in her mostly switching allegiance from feature films to television.
I think my favorite bit of insider eavesdropping is the mention of an unnamed studio executive who’s “stumped by ‘the audience’s confounding craving for something different.'” Imagine that. Here’s someone so steeped in the local commitment to give ticket buyers what they seem to want that he (maybe she?) doesn’t understand that what audiences often want is not something they’ve seen before-possibly have seen many times before. They very often want what they’ve never seen.
Reading that quote, I thought the person speaking was someone who had no business in the business. Or was it the opposite? A much worse thought: Was this precisely the person who should be in the business? And was I the one who’d absolutely have no future in Lalaland were I to take a fancy to it as a new career?
That notion-scary as the shower scene in Psycho-led me to thinking about Hollywood through the ages and whether Obst’s fears about being blindsided by industry changes are anything new and won’t continue evolving. In her final chapter she speculates on possible reprieves-such as “tadpole” movies, i. e., independent films often made possible now by, for instance, credit cards and YouTube exposure, by Kickstarter or by almost any sort of filmmaking available to the digital-friendly.
What Obst doesn’t do-not that she’s obligated to-is put her experiences into the context of Hollywood history. She doesn’t run down a list of times that a supposed Golden Age has been mourned by the denizens. The Golden Age of Hollywood has had any number of definitions. In something as recent as John Logan’s Broadway I’ll Eat You Last, Bette Midler playing famous agent Sue Mengers reminisced about how great the ’70s and ’80s were before it all went downhill.
But that’s hardly the only time Hollywood denizens have looked back with regret and unbridled nostalgia. What about the change from silents to talkies? What about the shift from black-and-white to color? What about the collapse of the major studios in the ’50s and the emergence of independents? What about the turmoil in 1969 when the low-budget Easy Rider threw a huge monkey wrench into the big-budget Hollywood staple?
That, folks, is the way of the world. Certainly, it’s the way of the Hollywood world. The only constant is change, and, as Obst hints in her closing pages, something’s coming that’ll upset if not everything, then upset enough for her to feel maybe another 10 years down the road the compulsion to write yet a third volume.