Secondhand Showings

The Great Recession causes Hollywood studios to limit the artistic possibilities for big budget movies

Melissa C. Wong

In tough economic times, major film studios grow more financially conservative. The result is a greater percentage of movies that rely on recycled stories and rehashed historical events, and fewer with original screenplays or innovative premises.

A confident and dangerous Sean Parker hovers over Mark Zuckerberg and Eduardo Saverin in “The Social Network.” “You don’t even know what the thing is yet,” he says. “How big it can get, how far it can go. This is no time to take your chips down. A million dollars isn’t cool. You know what’s cool?” The scene jumps back to the deposition and Saverin exclaims: “A billion dollars. And that’s what shut everybody up.”

This drive to financial success and fame that leads Zuckerberg into moral ambiguity also directs the motivations of Hollywood filmmakers. Perhaps more insidiously, the prospect of great profit encourages a stifling of filmic innovation just as it silences the legitimate ethical concerns of Saverin.

Indeed, as the economy worsens, Hollywood film studios increasingly hedge their bets. This risk-aversion has caused studios to focus on three kinds of narratives: those based on real life events, previously successful franchise films, and fictional stories already popular in our collective cultural consciousness. The high costs of production for major motion pictures have always limited creative possibility in popular cinema, but this constriction of artistic possibility may be at its most severe today.


A screenplay can make its way to the screen via multiple institutional paths, but most major studio films are produced with the same goals as any other financial investment. A production company and a distribution company gather the necessary capital in order to make the film with the expectation that they will at least break even. Breaking even is worthwhile in order to establish a relationship with a specific actor or director, or in an attempt to garner prestige by winning awards. Far more often, however, the decision to produce a film is profit-based. The prioritization of commercial success is so great that a distribution company generally spends an equal amount of money producing a movie and advertising it. For major studio releases, thousands of prints are generated and shipped to theaters across the country at an unimaginably high fixed costs that create intense pressure for success.


“Movie producers want to invest in something that they know is going to be profitable, and they can tell how these movies are going to do at the box office based on how the public has already received these stories,” says Daniel J. Rubin, a screenwriting lecturer in the English Department who co-wrote the popular movie “Groundhog Day.” “The less money there is floating around in Hollywood, the more this impulse takes hold.” Only when Hollywood has a lot of money, then, can it afford to lose some.

This phenomenon has clearly been evident this year. Of the 10 movies nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture, seven are either based on non-fiction accounts, remakes of previously successful stories, or new installments in franchise films. Of the five films nominated for Best Director, four fall into one of these three categories. “The King’s Speech,” a retelling of events surrounding World War II, won both awards. In other artistic media, success of this nature would be unlikely; no painting or sculpture, for example, would win such significant critical acclaim without a conceptually original premise.

The practice of adapting non-fiction events into film, however, dates to the very beginning of the film industry and became especially popular in the 1920s and 1930s. According to Associate Professor Art Simon of Montclair State University, “[During this period] producers at Warner Brothers would actually comb the newspapers regularly looking for events to adapt to the screen.” Of course, expectations for film during this period were entirely different. In an era before television, the only medium people could use to have the news to play out directly in front of them was film.

As Visual and Environmental Studies (VES) Professor Alfred Guzzetti explains, “Fewer movies are being produced now, and fewer movies are being released ... the cost of creating and releasing a movie has really, really gone up even in absolute dollars. It’s a much riskier enterprise.” When a studio produces many low-budget movies annually, it can afford to absorb the losses of a flop, but when a studio is producing few high-budget movies, the studio cannot afford these costs. This trend could potentially prove permanent as low-cost new media formats compete with films for the attention of audiences.


Considering most moviegoers can intuit how film narratives will resolve themselves, it may not be intrigue that draws them to the theater; it may rather be the dependability provided by a narrow set of possible storylines. There is an important difference between stories with predictable outcomes and those with popularly known outcomes. In the case of “Black Swan,” an audience member can fairly accurately predict the outcome from the composition of characters, but there is still an element of suspense. However, in “The King’s Speech” the ending is already known by every audience member before he or she ever sees the film—Britain will win World War II and King George VI will find a way around his stutter.

“Films are projected in order not to require too much interpretive labor or comparative study of variation in the manner of myth and folklore,” VES Professor Tom Conley wrote via email. “Something of the child’s part is in these films for the reason [that] enjoyment comes from repetition: as children we want to hear stories over and again, no matter how their narrative might turn out.” Works of art are generally praised for originality, which by its very nature challenges the viewer. Moviegoers, instead, seem to value something else in film: the tranquility of seeing expected, logical resolutions play out in the world before you, as they so rarely do in real life.

This brand of predictability extends beyond plot arc. “Many moviegoers didn’t see ‘True Grit’ because they remember the 1969 John Wayne version,” Simon says. “Instead, many people went to see the movie because they were fans of the Coen brothers and it was merely a case of personalities.”


As such, film producers do not always assume that a film’s financial success will be based on the popular attention surrounding real-life events or the success of a prior version of the same story. They also look toward projects involving celebrity directors or actors who have previously churned out large sums of money. Even in the recession, producers have been willing to bankroll movies such as “Black Swan”—directed by Darren S. Aronofsky ’91 and starring Natalie Portman ’03—and “Inception”—directed by Christopher Nolan and starring Leonardo DiCaprio—because of the trust they have in the ability of these actors and directors to attract audiences to the theater.


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