Renowned and iconic filmmakers Steven Spielberg and George Lucas think the film industry is headed toward an “implosion,” according to a Thursday afternoon address and forum.
Spielberg and Lucas, former collaborators on the “Indiana Jones” series, joined together once again to address a full-house crowd at the University of Southern California. The filmmakers were in attendance at the Los Angeles-based institute to help mark the opening of a new media center on campus. But while the sun may have been shining down on Hollywood during the filmmakers’ address, there was nothing but darkness in the future the two envisioned for Hollywood’s prime industry.
Both Spielberg and Lucas agree that the film business is teetering on a dangerous edge. Spielberg, a two-time Best Director winner at the Academy Awards and one of the most consistently successful filmmakers of all time, told USC film students to tread carefully as they venture into the industry. Spielberg used his own film, last year’s acclaimed and award-winning “Lincoln,” to explain just how hard it has become for filmmakers to get their projects into multiplexes, and he and Lucas only expect conditions to worsen for artistically-driven directors.
According to Spielberg, “Lincoln” was nearly a fixture on major pay-TV cable network HBO. Despite an impressive cast that includes Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, and Tommy Lee Jones, “Lincoln” was initially considered too historical, too educational, and too dialogue-driven for mainstream movie theaters. Similarly, Spielberg said that many young directors with innovative filmmaking ideas are written off for being “too fringey” for their films to be considered for wide release. Those more intelligent projects, then, are left to find homes on cable television networks—a phenomenon that has become more and more common in recent years—while the movie theaters instead litter their schedules with explosive blockbusters and flashy, style-over-substance visual thrills.
“That’s the big danger, and there’s eventually going to be an implosion or a big meltdown,” Spielberg said. “There’s going to be an implosion where three or four or maybe even a half-dozen mega-budget movies are going to go crashing into the ground, and that’s going to change the paradigm.”
Spielberg and Lucas believe that such a massive failure would result in a complete overhaul in the way movie studios market and sell their products. The shift, the two directors theorize, would launch movie theater ticket prices—especially for highly-anticipated blockbusters—into the stratosphere. Lucas noted that a single ticket for a big motion picture event—this spring’s record-breaking “Iron Man 3,” for example—could reach as much as $150. Going out to a movie, in other words, would become a luxurious pastime, similar to a night at the opera, or a Broadway show.
The question is whether or not audiences would be willing to accept luxury prices for entertainment that costs virtually nothing to reproduce or present. Expensive ticket prices work for Broadway shows because those productions exist on a live performance model and cost a lot of money to mount every night. From the sets to the casts to the professionals that keep the theaters running like well-oiled machines, a major Broadway musical is also a major investment every time it runs.
Blockbuster Hollywood films are certainly not cheap, but showing them at movie theaters remains an inexpensive business model, and most audiences would likely call the film industry’s bluff before dropping a full day’s income on a two-hour film. Attendance figures would plummet, and while film studios would hope to make up those losses with revenues from boosted ticket prices, there is a possibility that viewers would just forego the cinema altogether and wait for Netflix releases or screener leaks. For an industry already battling piracy, Spielberg and Lucas’s model would likely be a death knell.
As for the “meltdown” Spielberg mentioned, it hasn’t happened yet, but smaller-than-expected returns for a few of this summer’s early blockbusters—the Will Smith-starring “After Earth,” for example—may set off warning bells for industry analysts.