The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

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August 2, 2013

Benji Tunnell: Movie studios need lesson in frugality

JOPLIN, Mo. — Hollywood had a good run. After more than 100 years of cinematic exhibition, it appears as though its time in the sun is finally coming to an end.

At least that's what one would think after reading recent comments by high-powered and high-profile directors.

Not too long ago, Steven Soderbergh gave a speech at the San Francisco International Film Festival in which he lamented the inability to find financing for serious, adult-themed movies. Then, more recently, both Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, while speaking at the University of Southern California, painted a bleak picture of the future of studio films; one in which fewer films would be produced, creating longer stays at theaters and an almost Broadway-style ticketing structure, wherein the cost would vary from film to film.

Such hyperbole is more of a grab for attention than something to be taken too seriously. Lucas uses the example of the trouble he had getting his film "Red Tails" into theaters, but his "If George freakin' Lucas can't get it done, who can?" philosophy doesn't take into account that, unless his movies have "Star Wars" or "Indiana Jones" in the titles, he really doesn't carry very much weight with distributors or theaters. It also discounts the fact that "Red Tails" just wasn't a good movie.

Spielberg, on the other hand, does make a point when speaking of his struggles getting "Lincoln" financed and released. While in hindsight it seems like a no-brainer, you can see the inherent risk of the concept and how it might not guarantee opening-weekend money.  There has long been an oversaturation of big-budget, big-effects films that are light on story but heavy on star power.

As we have seen big-budget flops this summer with films such as "After Earth," "The Lone Ranger" and "R.I.P.D," it is easy to recognize that there is a problem. Yet, as much as I would like to think that eventually someone in the studio system would learn, it seems unlikely.

Just last year was the one-two flop combo of "John Carter" and "Battleship." The year before there was the crash and burn of "Mars Needs Moms." Box office flops are annual, money is hemorrhaged like clockwork and occasionally people lose their jobs, but the one constant is this: They still get made.

Very little is likely to change in the current system, though one would hope that unexpected and reasonably priced hits such as "Now You See Me," "The Conjuring" or "The Purge" would convince studios that it would make more sense to be selective in what movies are made and where money is spent.

The problem with films today isn't how much money is being spent but how that money is being spent. If studios would do a little research before green-lighting a film, they might be able to predict the indifference with which a film will eventually be met.

Do I feel that the state of movie-making is as dire as Spielberg, Lucas and Soderbergh say? No. It isn't healthy, to be certain, but it isn't in the midst of its death throes just yet.

There are still smart studios that recognize that low-risk, high-reward experiments are worth being made. It is why Lionsgate and Summit Entertainment were able to build themselves into studios to watch with the "Saw" series and "Twilight" series, respectively.

Were these franchises good? I think that history speaks for itself. But they were massively profitable, and they were proven so before budgets were allowed to escalate. Now that the two have merged, we see the same pattern being repeated with "The Hunger Games." These small studios recognized that they couldn't play ball on the same field as the bigger boys, so they instead were smarter with how they approached their game.

What matters in the end is the quality of the experience.

In 10 years, we're still going to see the same flops, the same patterns, and the same  mistakes being made again. But we'll also be seeing that spark that drives creativity, that keeps us interested and that allows us to be captivated by the magic and wonder that the moviegoing experience can be.

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