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Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar Voynar@moviecitynews.com

More on Hollywood as Brand

Clearly, David and I disagreed on the validity of the premise of Mark Harris’ GQ piece “The Day the Movies Died.” Over on the Hot Blog, David more or less tore Harris’ arguments to shreds in making his own points. But while I don’t agree with every argument Harris makes, and I don’t disagree, necessarily, that tonally his piece is a bit of a Chicken Little, look out the Hollywood sky falling melodrama… on the other hand, I agree with Harris that the sky is falling and has been for some time.

For me, the money in the Harris piece, which David overlooks in his rebuttal, is the argument that Hollywood has become, in the last 30 years, about selling brands. And I’m not talking about product placement financing movies (that idea, to a certain extent, kind of intrigues me as one avenue for raising money for indie films, but that’s an idea to explore in another column). What I’m talking about is the safety net of selling a brand that consumers are already comfortable with — hence the dearth of originality and the ubiquity of The Sequel.

From the Harris piece:

With that in mind, let’s look ahead to what’s on the menu for this year: four adaptations of comic books. One prequel to an adaptation of a comic book. One sequel to a sequel to a movie based on a toy. One sequel to a sequel to a sequel to a movie based on an amusement-park ride. One prequel to a remake. Two sequels to cartoons. One sequel to a comedy. An adaptation of a children’s book. An adaptation of a Saturday-morning cartoon. One sequel with a 4 in the title. Two sequels with a 5 in the title. One sequel that, if it were inclined to use numbers, would have to have a 7 1/2 in the title.1

Exactly. Lots of safety there. Lots of brands.

David brings up comic book movies. You could call the advent of the comic book movies a ballsy move by Hollywood, I guess. I don’t really see it as ballsy for Hollywood studios to embrace making movies squarely targeted at the demographic of 18-25 males, but okay. Ballsy maybe in the sense that comic books tend to have rabid fan followings that will get pissed if you screw up adapting their beloved source material — but really, that’s also about the brand, isn’t it? Don’t change the special sauce, go with what you know works, with what your audience is expecting. I’d be more impressed if Hollywood was being ballsy in making movies targeted at the female demographic that aren’t banal rom-coms. Or in making small adult dramas for small budgets with an eye to a modest return on investment.

And the movies David lists that are $100 million studio films that took a chance? Black Swan, True Grit, Shutter Island? And Inception, even. Aronsofsky, Coens, Scorsese, Nolan. All awards shots financed by studios. All by directors who have greater-than-average pull in being able to get the kind of movies they want made. All movies I’m delighted actually got made, to be sure. But really, more the exception that proves the rule, than the rule itself.

Look, Hollywood is a business, and while it operates under its own rules to a degree, it still follows many of the models of any large corporation. No one wants to be the guy who takes a chance on a $100 million flop, sure. I would argue that the very fact that Hollywood revolves around spending that much money making movies to begin with is just insane. You don’t need $100 million to make a good movie. You need a compelling story, strong characters, good performances. In the indie world, good movies are made for $500K and under all the time — and honestly, even that feels like a LOT of money to me.

What makes movies cost $100 million (or more) to make? A lot of stuff that squarely targets that 18-25 male demographic. Lots of special effects. Blowing stuff up. T & A. And big stars with huge salaries (Yeah, I get the argument that if your name and face can rake in $100 million for a movie you deserve a huge paycheck. Whatever. I’m not a capitalist. I still think big stars are way overpaid). Because — again getting back to branding — those big stars? Are also brands. They are the McDonalds and the Gaps and the Chuck E Cheeses of the entertainment industry. Comfort for the masses, comfort for the studios.

Even The Karate Kid, one of the films David would argue as an exception, is not an exception. It’s a reinvention of a comfort food brand, paired with Will Smith, one of the biggest brands in Hollywood, extending his brand to encompass his kid — who happens to have enough of his dad’s charm and talent and charisma to pull that shit off.

They represent safety in investment, and when they stop being able to “open” a movie their valuation in Hollywood drops at an astonishing rate. Hollywood creates brands and spits them out again when they lose their flavor, and then reinvents the same thing over and over again.

Setting aside a few awards-shot films like your Black Swans and True Grits and Shutter Islands that studios can point to and say, “See, we do too make some good movies!”, what is Hollywood investing its money in when it comes to building brands? They’re making expensive, safe, comfort food. They’re making Happy Meals and selling it to the masses as prime rib.

Which brings us back around to the idea of indie film as a brand in and of itself and the role of regional film festivals in building that brand. I’ve had some interesting conversations with some fest folks, particularly about the role of education and outreach in exposing young people to different ideas about what movies are and should be than they would have if they grow up only viewing what’s in the multiplex as encompassing their definition of “movie.” And these conversations, no matter how they’re framed, really boil down to branding, and to how you build brand loyalty. McDonalds and Disney get this better than just about anyone, they are marketing to our kids from before they even hatch.

Hollywood and its big blockbusters — what most people think of when they think “movies” — is really only the big yachts on the surface of the ocean. Some of those yachts are fancier than other yachts, or have brighter paint or cooler features to get your attention, sure. But under the surface of that ocean is a whole world of cool stuff that you’d never see if you didn’t dive a little deeper, and most of it is way more interesting — and infinitely more varied — than those yachts. But we as consumers — and our kids as consumers — are marketed to in such a way that sells the idea that there is nothing to look at beyond the shiny, pretty yachts. And we buy that shit en masse, hook, line and sinker.

I want to see regional fests playing a role of building indie film as a brand in and of itself. The idea that there is a whole world of films out there that Hollywood would never take a chance on making, that people are nonetheless getting made. Down below the brand of “indie” you have infinite possibilities for films that fill particular niche roles. Look at Sundance this year, for instance — not a regional fest in and of itself, but it is an indie machine that feeds the smaller fests to a certain degree. There were the little adult dramas like Martha Marcy May Marlene, The Lie and The Off Hours, the romantic dramas like Like Crazy — so much more interesting than any rom-com made by Hollywood starring Jennifer Aniston (who, in turn, was so much more interesting in The Good Girl and even Marley and Me than in any Hollywood rom-com).

There were great little coming-of-age flicks like Submarine and Terri that were so much better than crap like Diary of a Wimpy Kid (I know, slightly different demographic, but the Diary of a Wimpy Kid audience will be watching coming-of-age flicks in a couple years, and wouldn’t you rather they saw GOOD ones than crappy ones?). And there were some interesting midnight selections in films like Silent House and Septien and even The Cathechism Cataclysm, which was trippy and interesting in its own way.

Kids are smart enough to know the difference between what’s crap and what’s not, when you give them a choice. If you don’t feed your kid anything but processed chicken nuggets and fish sticks and instant mashed potatoes and McDonalds and Burger King, you can’t expect him to be willing to taste and appreciate Thai food and Indian food and cuban chicken and sushi and really amazing burgers fresh ground from organically-fed beef. If you feed kids nothing but a steady diet of Hollywood crap from the time they’re in diapers, you are helping, whether you realize it or not, to mold your kid into a brand consumer of Hollywood dreck. You are, by extension, a crucial part of the machine that builds that brand.

Regional fests are more popular than ever, in places that 10 or 20 years ago I never would have thought could support a regional film festival. And you shouldn’t have to be lucky enough to grow up in Los Angeles or the Upper West Side in order to get exposed to the idea that there’s another way to make movies than the way Hollywood does it. Regional fests are bringing independent film to places outside New York and LA, and a lot of them are doing some incredible work with education and outreach. And we have no idea what the cumulative impact of the growth and expansion of regional fests will be as they continue to grow and build their own brands locally, but I hope that at least part of the result will be that regional fests help build the brand of indie film and the next generation of both consumers of and providers of that smaller brand of cinematic experience.

Hollywood isn’t about to reinvent itself, and it sure as hell isn’t about to give up its allegiance to the almighty dollar or its addiction to the things — the fancy mansions, the luxury cars, the designer clothes and jewelry — that all that money can buy. It’s up to people working in independent film to keep fighting the good fight to get their movies made and branded and seen by audiences.

There are indie filmmakers who already seem to get this — Joe Swanberg, for instance, whose films I’m not generally a huge fan of, but I respect the hell out of his work ethic and the way in which he goes about just doing what he wants and getting it done. Ramin Bahrani, who really needs to stick with smaller films like those he’s been making and not reach for the bigger budget brass ring. Kelly Reichardt. Azazel Jacobs. Lynn Shelton, who I hope sincerely never goes more commercial because she works so well on smaller canvases. Megan Griffiths, whose first feature was way better than it should have been for a small-budget film by a first time director — I can’t wait to see what she does as she keeps learning and growing.

I hope all of these filmmakers and more never stop working within the indie realm. The danger of too much success is the temptation to allow your unique brand to get acquired by the big boys, diluted and then sucked up, in the same way that Microsoft or AOL will buy up the competition, keep it around for a while, and then eventually absorb it into the collective. The indie film community as a whole needs to find a way to make their brand work — and figure out what “success” looks like. Does it look like a big yacht floating on the surface? Or like the coral reef underneath? Figure that out and stick with what you do, and do it well. And keep doing it.

7 Responses to “More on Hollywood as Brand”

  1. iChuck says:

    THE WORLD WILL NOT LET MOVIES DIE
    They are too accessible.
    And that is meant in two ways: they have the power to affect us emotionally, on an entertainment level, and occasionally spiritually; and in this day and age of information, which isn’t going away any time soon, they are literally physically easy to access.
    Whether you pay $10 at the B.O. or wait for Redbox and dvd, or download it on your phone(!), we now live in a society in which movies are becoming both intimately personal and universal, and as easy to find as music on the radio.
    By saying that ‘movies died’ is really one person’s view that nothing, ever will be good or original again. It is the defeatest statement of a die-hard pessimist. For whom in this griever’s mind have ‘movies died’? For that sad and disappointed person, promising themselves that the end is near and nothing will again inspire them in cinema. The old man never to again reach third base in the back seat of a car.
    Like Mr. Poland, I call bullshit.
    As an artform the painted canvass had its day, as did sculpting, as did poetry, etc. But when Michaelangelo produced ‘David’ was the internet all a-twitter with buzz over the mastery of his work? No. Would it be today? No.
    It is a classic masterpiece, but not entertainment. Nothing beats seeing it in person, but one must cross half a world to experience it. The same is true is of any Renoir or Degas painting, you can buy a print or even download a photo of it on the internet. The themes (and stories) in these timeless pieces are rich and complicated, but they are not easily accessible, in the former sense, to many today. You can’t even see a play without attending it, except through…anyone…anyone? Film.
    Movies, while often “homaged” or rebooted, or sequeled will because of their power, accessibility, the world wide society in which we live, or for the simple fact that every new generation appreciates the classics will not see their death as art or entertainment for quite a long time.
    Forget the studio-ization, forget the sequel-itis and the B.O. numbers, forget the “technology has outgrown story” theme and the “blockbuster killed film” theories. For the death of every one, cynical, no longer passionate critic’s love of movies, a thousand are born. We are at one of the most exciting times in cinema, where audiences are so much more open to themes that were previously ignored, and have an ever expanding library. Storytelling through film is as topical and political and important and entertaining to the world as ever and to have lost sight of that is the reflection of an individual, not the movies.
    “A cynic is one who can tell you the price of everything, but the value of nothing”
    Those who woe the death of movies: take heed.
    By the way, the guy copping a feel with a girl in the back of a ’63 Buick got to third base probably on the same night he took her to a movie. That he didn’t even want to see. That he actually kinda liked.

  2. Scott says:

    iChuck, your comments were thoughtful, hope-inspiring, and reinvigorating. I believe you’re right. Thank you for saying it.

  3. Kim Voynar says:

    Chuck, you make some well-written, eloquent points. But I don’t think the Harris piece is so much about how the audience for good films has completely died — I agree with you that there are plenty of people who come to fests and such or will watch indie films on DVD or whatever — but more about the circularity of why Hollywood keeps churning out bad movies to begin with. It’s the seemingly endless chicken-egg debate. Do audiences shell out millions to see bad movies because there aren’t enough (or they don’t perceive there are enough) other options? Or does Hollywood create this perception by the movies they make?

    Yes, Harris does make the point that Hollywood keeps making crap because people keep buying tickets for crap to the tune of millions. You and I may have differing ideas about what constitutes a crappy movie, but can you really argue the point that “they” make it because “we” as consumers hand them our dollars?

    I would argue that great storytelling in movies is happening far more in the realm of independent film than it is in Hollywood — which in turn makes the impact of regional film festivals more important. Indie filmmakers are learning to use the regional fest circuit as a tour circuit in the same way indie musicians do, and I think there’s potential there for a model that sustains independent filmmaking.

    Don’t get me wrong, I love it when Hollywood greenlights an awesome smart film like Inception or True Grit or Black Swan. But when they spend hundreds of millions on yet another Fast and Furious or Transformers franchise or godawful Nic Cage supernatural/car/action vehicle, I just cringe — in part because of all the good films that could have been made with those dollars. Or homeless fed in soup kitchens. Or anything of actual societal value.

    But on the other hand, I recognize that not everyone thinks those kinds of films are wretched, and that a lot of people (obviously) find value in paying to see them in theaters. Which is kind of the point of the Harris piece, n’est-ce pas?

    And lastly, thank you so much for offering up such a thoughtful, intelligent comment.

  4. Scott says:

    Responding to:
    I want to see regional fests playing a role of building indie film as a brand in and of itself. The idea that there is a whole world of films out there that Hollywood would never take a chance on making, that people are nonetheless getting made.
    ***

    Perhaps I have an unusual perspective because I love a lot of Indie films, but also love a lot of Hollywood films.

    To build Indie into a brand name, you must change the general public’s perception of Indie. And I’d say the masses think Indie is either too artsy, or too low-quality. What *you* might call “films that Hollywood would never take a chance on” the general public would call “films that weren’t good enough for Hollywood.”

    Of course, I’m on your side in that argument, but branding starts with changing the public’s perception of Indie. I think it can be done, but it will take an effort directed at changing the public’s perception.

  5. David Poland says:

    The problem with Mark’s piece is that you can pick out the stuff you like or agree with – and I have been writing about the marketing-as-movie element of Hollywood as long as anyone – but the tone suggests that movies are in trouble in a way that isn’t accurate.

  6. Kim Voynar says:

    Scott, completely agree with you with regard to how indie films are widely perceived — and I think this applies double or more in places that have not traditionally had access to indie film. You grow up in NY or LA with parents who encourage you to partake of the arts scene, you probably have a very different perception of indie film. I grew up in OKC in the ’70s and ’80s and I didn’t even know there WAS such a thing as indie film until I was in college.

    But I’m very interested in the ways in which regional film festivals, which bring indie film to places that may not otherwise have that access, can serve an important role in building the indie film “brand” as a more accessible thing that it might now be perceived. Remove the mystery, make it accessible, and you can evolve what the brand is and what it means … hopefully without diluting the product for the sake of accessibility.

  7. Kim Voynar says:

    David, I hear you, but you and I just disagree on this issue. For me, it is less about cherry-picking this or that from the Harris piece and arguing over the rightness or wrongness of particular thoughts there, than about the broader issues he’s addressing.

    Hollywood spends hundreds of millions of dollars making crappy movies. People shell out money to see them, and that’s certainly their right. Personally, I think there are a lot of societal issues that could be better served by that money, and I also think it’s obscene to spend so extravagantly to make crappy films (or even great films), and wrong on a moral level for Hollywood stars and studio heads to be paid as much as they are.

    That, of course, is a separate issue that delves more deeply into politics and philosophy, which I may just address in a separate piece because it really does bother the hell out of me. And then there’s the (also political) issue of lack of public funding for the arts in the US … if we allocated a fraction of our “defense” budget toward the arts, how many movies reaching higher for the realm of “art” might we see?

    Bottom line: It’s expensive to make and market a film — WAY more expensive than it should be — and this is very much driven by Hollywood creating and feeding this idea that you should spend $100 million to make a MOVIE for gosh sakes, and another $50 million to market it. Insane. And this insanity creates an inequity that has a very real impact on independent filmmakers being able to get their projects made and seen.

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One of the great movies. Charles Bronson, great, Charles Bronson. Great movies. Today you can’t make that movie because it’s not politically correct, right? It’s not politically correct. But could you imagine with Trump? Somebody says, oh, all these big monsters aren’t around he’s easy pickings and then shoot.”
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