The Pictures: Disney, 'Star Wars' and Shareholder Cinema
Big money, safe bets, steady profits. But does good corporate policy mean good movies?
I enjoy movies. Odds are you do too. If you were born within 10 years of my birthdate, you too have memories of lining up to an actual movie theater -- not a multiplex -- to see "Star Wars" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "Superman" or "The Thing" or "Wrath of Khan" or "Aliens" or ... Well, you get the point. And we always associate that kind of entertainment with the unsullied joy of a big theater, ideally; the first multiplex theater in North America opened an hour away from my hometown in 1979, taking a few years to spread to the sleepy 'burbs where I lived. And I find myself thinking about this, more than ever as of late, with all of this coming to a head in the smaller hours of the night it was announced that, for $4 billion plus in stock and cash, Disney was buying Lucasfilm right down to the floorboards, mainly for "Star Wars" as an intellectual property. (As many said, the news wasn't that it happened; the news was in many ways how it took so long.)
It is a smart business decision, a way of leveraging beloved properties through distribution and production and cross-capitalization: Look for a Star Wars TV series on the Disney-owned ABC. New Star Wars comics from Marvel, similarly bought by Disney. Perhaps custom content for Apple's iOS devices, distributed by iTunes, itself affiliated with the Disney family. I'm sure some wag has already pondered if ESPN -- again, a Disney property -- will start carrying podraces.
To be fair, the company I work for is a competitor to Disney's Apple, but to be equally fair, I could be talking hypothetically about a lot of movie-land decisions as of late -- Sony's "Amazing Spider-Man" reboot, "The Hobbit" from Warner Brothers, Warner Brothers' insistence on having a "Justice League" movie by 2015, the Bond at 50 Blu-ray set. I do not think that any of us would deign to tell the movie studios how to do what they do; it is, after all, a tricky business, and every loudmouth with a keyboard these days seems to think that they and only they understand it. But I do think that I can tell the movie studios that a lot of what they are doing -- artistic decisions that aren't, franchise-managing more than innovating, sequel-izing instead of storytelling -- is not of interest to me, and that it would be only if I were a shareholder in the studio. And since I am not, what should I care for their latest synergistic efforts placed before the avid public? Why should I care about Disney's smart business decisions -- or any studio's smart business decisions -- if they can't or don't make interesting creative decisions to go with them? And worse, what if there are more people like me than the studios think?
"Shareholder Cinema," as I call it -- moviemaking built around maximum profit first and always -- is real. I am not the sort who maintains many illusions about an era of cinema I was not alive or aware for; any starry-eyed nostalgic toting a copy of "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls" can have all their illusions about the genius, integrity and independence of the '70s cinema shattered by two minutes of "The Swarm" or Marjoe Gortner's freak-out in "Earthquake." We flatter ourselves as nostalgics, to think that we must live in a debased age, cast out of an Eden others knew. But movies have always been good and bad, money-makers or money-losers, balancing each other out with the invisible hand of capitalism smoothing out the marketplace. It's just that, to be blunt, the way it's all happening these days seems a little too calculated, a little too coldly executed, a little too formulaic. And the decision of what to do, at a studio level, seems less and less to be about what kind of story you can tell on-screen than what kind of story you can tell in the quarterly report or the shareholder's brief.
Movies have always demanded return on investment -- but under the current rules of cutthroat capitalism, huge conglomerates can look wounded by money-losing divisions (or even divisions that don't make enough money, or enough of the right kind of money) and have to focus on the consistently high quarter-over-quarter profits and upward-ticking profitability that can encourage both gigantic pension funds and trigger-happy day traders not drop you like dead meat, which is what they'll do in the absence of that kind of quarter-over-quarter return. And if there is any death knell for a serious proposition in business, in culture, in life, it is this: When you are more concerned about money and reputation -- the stock price -- than you are about doing what you do -- providing services to customers at a markup from cost so that you might turn a profit -- you are doomed.
In that way, our current generation of shareholder cinema -- made to turn over consistent-on-a -uptick profitability with sequels, franchises, and returns to old universes -- is bad for three reasons: The bets are bigger, the players keep trying to play hands that worked before over and over again even when they fail, and nobody is going to get up and walk away from the table because at best each player has enough to hang on just a little longer in the hope of the kind of victory that not only rouses the crowd of onlookers but also wipes away any previous losses. I'm no expert, but I think that's how you lose a lot of money at poker.
As a child of the '80s, I grew up the greatest era of growth and expansion pop culture has ever seen, like if I had lived in a British farming town by a small stream that had turned into a clattering production center of the industrial revolution through 30 year's time. Movies, comics, rock and roll, the internet -- and the Reagan-era deregulation that let big fish eat little fish all the more cleanly, and the Clinton-era internet bubble that gave little fish the kind of money to be sharks. (If you ever doubt politics affects pop culture, note that Reagan let info-mercials exist -- and at a stroke killed late-night "Twilight Zone" and B-movie marathons on TV.) I have no doubt that Google is a very large company; I also know that what it does to make money is mostly encourage people to write for machines, not other humans, so that humans who need a plane ticket or a mattress might be leapt on and thrust at blindly like an attractive human in a dim-lit night club by middlemen, SEO wranglers, and other disreputable types. But consider how Apple -- that paragon of the '60's soul and the '70s heart brought alive by futuristic technology, elegant simplicity and Chinese factory labor -- turned selling you music you don't actually own into enough money to buy, well, everything.
I know, I know: Back to movies. And I like big movies. I just don't think that they're very likable these days, or at least not at the mega-studio level where long-term plans between corporate assets and hired creators intertwine like a nest of rots that strangle the plant. I have friends who would be in ecstasy at, say, Joss Whedon directing a "Star Wars" film -- but, not to deny them their pleasure, I can't clap my hands for a creator who innovated 20 years ago being given the make-work of trying to jolt life into a creation that goes back 20 years before that. Yes, there's a canon of film, and great pop-culture characters have always been returned to out of a mix of love and money -- it's just that nowadays, that return is primarily for the love of money.
Sony's "The Amazing Spider-Man" wasn't as much about telling a story as it was protecting a trademark so it didn't revert to Marvel; Warner Brothers may be bloating "The Hobbit" into three films, but that's quite probably because they don't yet have the gall to charge you $42 for one movie. Even "Battleship" -- a film I have an irrational affection for, despite all logic -- was Universal's attempt to cushion the bet with the name of a game. If "Battleship" had a better sci-fi war title -- "Splashdown," "Marooned on Planet Earth" (add a exclamation point if you're Irwin Allen) or "Anchors and Aliens" -- maybe people wouldn't have hated it as much. Of course, if "Battleship" weren't "Battleship," it wouldn't have been made in the first place.
Now, familiarity is held in esteem over quality; I know people so ecstatic about the existence of "The Avengers," as it unites characters they know and love -- albeit some ranging back to World War II (or, if you want to get sticky about it, the ancient Norse) -- that they can overlook the ways in which it isn't very good. I've been reading "Marvel Comics: The Untold Story" by Sean Howe, and as much as I like the tales of blown deadlines and accidental success, I also have to note that most of the pop-culture constructs that have a hold on our imaginations are 40, 50, or more years old. If pop culture is a record of dreams, then 2012 pop culture looks vaguely similar to a bunch of nonsense Stan Lee thought up in the '60s. Say what you will about "Twilight," but it's at least not half a century old; for all of the violence in "The Hunger Games," I think I'd rather have my (hypothetical) teen or tween read or watch it than "Avengers" or "Skyfall" or "The Hobbit" or any other relic from a pop-culture age that had few roles -- let alone role models -- for women, or much use for them, never mind their other slights and failings.
And so Disney buys Lucasfilm, lock, stock and lightsaber, and announces an Episode 7 -- never mind what it'll be about, or who. The news created as much of a ripple as anything does in pop culture -- tomorrow I'm sure there'll be some new source of outrage or delight, some other corporate initiative masked as creative groundbreaking -- and I intend to ignore and not read all the hypothesizing pieces about what plots or which creators these films could involve. (If ever a headline where made to demonstrate the nature and character of our SEO-friendly age -- or at least, more friendly to SEO than it is to actual human readers -- it would be "7 Directors we'd like to see tackle 'Star Wars' ...") I like movies, and making them riskier in cost means making them more boring in execution -- but making them less risky in terms of cost makes them less possibly rewarding. George Clinton once wisely noted that Columbia Records would rather have one Michael Jackson selling 30 million records than 30 artists selling one million records -- you make as much money either way, but the former is easier to manage. Disney could have taken the money they paid for Lucasfilm, made 5 $200-million dollar epics, and even if they all flopped and didn't return the investment back averaged between all 5 films, they would still have 3 Billion left over to try that tactic again three more times if they wanted to. They don't want to.
There are, to be sure, people trying to release the equivalent of the non-Michael Jackson films -- small distributors, financiers like Megan Ellison -- but they're few and far between. Instead, the big studios take big risks that either pay off like "Avengers" or don't like "John Carter," "Tron Legacy" and when you realize that all three of those examples are from the same company that just bought Lucasfilm, it's a little more telling why Disney might want a guaranteed moneymaker like Luke, Leia and Han to cushion the buffets and blows and blunders. Writing up the recent James Bond at 50 box set, I noted that at this point, making Bonds is like buying bonds -- a stable return on investment, proven numbers year after year. I don't object to shareholder cinema because it wants to make money; I object to it because it wants to make all the money, and it doesn't particularly feel like it has to say 'pardon me' before it reaches.
Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away, talents like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg and James Cameron and John Carpenter got to make big films for a little money -- "Star Wars" had a budget of $11 million 1976 dollars -- that people lined up for in droves. And while my memories of those films are lost, slightly, in a haze of passing years and the unending current that bears us forward to the future, I don't recall walking out of any of them and saying, or thinking, Wow, that was a safe investment. Disney's purchase of Lucasfilm should excite any shareholder or investor; as for anyone else, like me, looking at shareholder cinema from the outside wondering why everything in the shop window is so big, shoddy and shabby? Buy a ticket, or get out of the way.