Death/rebirth of the rental

In all this thinking about the cost of seeing a film, I forgot one simple, affordable and popular way that people see relatively new films: the rental. I’m on Netflix, after a year hiatus, but mostly because my wife wanted the streaming service, which she uses constantly.

But remember the days, maybe ten years ago, right before DVD took off, when everybody used to go to the video store and rent. It was two or three bucks and you’d take home a VHS and you had to bring it back in a day or two. Not a perfect system, but a massively popular one. There were several big chains doing it, and thousands of smaller stores, some with extensive arthouse libraries. Everybody did it. It was a massive market.

Netflix recently passed 10 million customers. This is huge, but it’s nothing compared to how many people used to rent films. I did a quick look up on the web and around 2000, the video rental business was in the 10 billion dollar range. What I found interesting was that the rental market was declining a long time before Netflix came along.

It started declining as soon as DVD popped up. What happened? I remember going to the video store when I bought my first DVD player, back in about 1998, and renting. Why did people stop renting videos and deciding that they had to have them in their “library”?

Part of this was that we always wanted to have our favorite films at home in our library. But to buy a VHS of a film was always expensive. It usually cost 75 dollars to buy a VHS. You could always tape it off TV, and we did, but the quality wasn’t as good. (The quality of VHS seems laughable now.) Renting was really the only option.

So why did Hollywood kill it by lowering the price of DVD’s to 15-20 dollars? It beats the fuck out of me! Obviously, they made more money that way, especially with DVD’s costing so little to manufacture. Video stores, I guess, were always hanging by a thread as far as their business models went, because even a slight decline in 2000 put most of them out of business.

So Netflix has brought back the rental and made it palatable. Eventually, we’ll all have VOD, but that still seems like years away because the studios don’t know how to work that into their financing models.

I still think Netflix is fairly pricey. I just bought three DVD’s from Amazon for under ten bucks, including shipping. They were used, but so are the ones that come from Netflix. With Netflix, I found that, unless I was watching the films constantly, I wasn’t getting my money’s worth.

There was something about that old trip to the video store that, once you made the effort to go get the movie, you’d almost always sit down and watch it. I’m not sure why, but with Netflix, you always end up with three films that you’re really not in the mood to watch. With the streaming option, it’s better, but it’s almost like watching TV. It’s a whole different experience. But maybe that’s the point. Film is changing, and the experience of watching a film is changing, and maybe the whole thing is just different now than it used to be.

More on the cost and value of a film

I was thinking about what I wrote the other day about the value of a film, and it occurred to me that there was an interesting area that should be thought of a little more deeply: the 3 million dollar film.

You have to read back for the full comparisons, but these lower budgeted films I compared to a family run or individually owned restaurant. I would guess that unless eating out means McD’s or Applebee’s to you, you all know what kind of place I’m talking about. It’s not a chain, or corporate owned. The food, as I said before, can be two dollar tacos or fifty dollar steaks, so there is a wide range of what is offered in this budget range, and a wide range of prices charged. By budget range, I’m basically talking about start up costs, but each film is a new start up.

Anyway, I was trying to figure out a pricing model for films that would be sort of equivalent, and I thought of wine. Wine comes from huge conglomerates, but also comes from family run vineyards. Those vineyards produce wines of varying value and quality – not only between vineyards, but also year to year. What is interesting in this comparison is that the quality of the wine, the higher the price. This may seem obvious, but, remember, in the world of film, all films cost the same, no matter how good they are.

So, if a vineyard produces a very fine wine year, they are rewarded with higher prices.

How is that quality picked? Basically, by critics. There are people who genuinely have a talent for picking wine and there are those with clout, like Robert Parker, and when they say a wine is good, dealers charge more for it.

The same thing happens with a film. If a film does well at a festival, ie. it is well reviewed or generally liked, a sales agent representing that film can generally sell it for more. The distributors buying the film are depending on more people seeing it to recoup their extra costs.

Wouldn’t it make sense that a film that was well reviewed or generally well liked could ask a little more for their film?

I go to the wine store and I generally know that for 10 bucks, I’m going to get some crappy, though maybe drinkable wine. But for 20-30 bucks I’m expecting something better. And if I ever paid more, I’d expect something special. Wouldn’t it be nice if films fit into that pricing range, where we had an idea of what we were going to get by the price we were going to pay for it. After all, sometimes we’re fine with the 10 dollar bottle and once in a while, we’ll feel like something extra special where the wine will be more of an experience and not just something to go with the meat. So, I’m not saying that anyone would pay fifty dollars to go see a movie (would they?), but I’m sure they’d pay twenty if they knew they were going to get something better than the ten dollar film. And a five dollar film would have a value of its own, competing against the more expensive films as something that could still be good, but maybe not as complex; maybe as something you do on a date, where it’s really just an appetizer for dinner and a night out.

I think there is one more part of this economic model that I want to look at. I’ll cough that one up in the next day or two.

Death of grown up films

The big non-news in Hollywood this week is that STATE OF PLAY did crappy at the box office. This means that, in case you’ve missed this message which they deliver over and over again, grown ups don’t go to the movies so why is anybody still making movies for them?

There’s some real hard truths in this, but blaming the grown ups who don’t go to the movies is like blaming the guy with the foreclosed house for the state of the economy (someone offered him money, what was he supposed to do?)

Hollywood stopped making grown up films completely years ago. They had second thoughts when Miramax won a bunch of Academy Awards, then they all bought or created specialty divisions to make these films. Then, last year, most of them closed those divisions.

Now when a film like Duplicity or State of Play comes out, it carries a lot of weight on its shoulders because when it doesn’t do big numbers, that means the whole sector is out to lunch.

I would argue that grown ups have not willingly walked away from movies in despair. I would say that they’ve been crowded out of theaters the same way their films have been and at the same time. The only model that works for a studio releasing a film now is the one that brings in a bonanza box office on the first weekend. Forget about a movie “having legs” anymore. A film has legs these days if the box office goes down only 50%.

Grown ups don’t really care if they see a movie on opening day or not. They don’t always have the time to see it on opening day. They are a little more skeptical of marketing and want to hear about it word of mouth before spending the time to check out a film. And, as I’ve been reading, grown up films, being more complicated, don’t market as easily in a high concept sense. In other words, grown up films exist in a world where a film can sit in the theater for a few months – and that world doesn’t exist anymore except on DVD. Blaming the economy of this does not jibe with the other numbers coming out of Hollywood, ie. that people are flocking to the movies because its cheap entertainment. (Not cheap enough, as I always say here.)

Kids have free time, are looking for something to do, obsess about these things and they have money to spend.

Also, grown ups have lost the habit of going to the movies because for the last twenty-plus years they’ve had less and less reason to go. It’s not enough to make one film every once in a while and say, where’s the audience? Only years of grown up films playing in theaters could ever bring that audience back, which many hits and misses along the way. Obviously, that utopia isn’t going to happen anytime soon, so we have to look to DVD, because they do still see films on DVD.

But DVD is suffering from the same problems, leftover from dwindling releases in the theaters. This (and internet delivery) are the future of the grown up film, but the Hollywood and the financing models haven’t yet come to terms with this simple fact.

Until they do, we will get even less grown up films and more and more kids films, of every age group up to 25. It’s a bleak future, but it doesn’t have to be.

The value of a film and the cost to see it.

If you go to see a film in the theater, whatever film you pick will cost the same as any other.  It doesn’t matter how much a film cost to make, or how many people are expected to go see it, it will cost the same as any other film.  I doesn’t matter how good it is, or how prestigious or high brow it is, it will cost the same as all the others.

While there’s a certain democratic quality to this that I like, it seems fundamentally wrong in a free market economy.  What happened to the supply and demand curve?  What happened to the cost of making something having some bearing on the cost of buying it?  And while it’s always hard to measure prestige or quality, we have no problem choosing restaurants based on some measure like that – at least the intentions of a restaurant can be deduced from the items on the menu and the prices they charge.

Now, as far as supply and demand, the studios do their best to control supply.  They flood the theaters, and keep our choices down, or, if they think a film will attract less people, they might open it in fewer theaters.  So, in that sense, they control supply to keep in line with that price point.

But I can think of no other industry where the price is fixed, across the board, for whatever product line you are offering.  In fact, in most industries, I’m pretty sure this would be called price fixing.  It’s been like this for my entire life, and, as far as I know, for the history of movies in America, from the days when five cents bought you a feature, a b-picture, a few shorts and a news reel.  Popcorn stays uniformly and unrealistically high-priced, no matter where you see a film.  And this policy continues, basically, into the world of DVD, where DVD’s all cost about 15- 20 bucks.  (The internet is changing this a little, but that’s the price the studios have picked and are reluctant to lower, despite the fact that a DVD costs them about a buck fifty to manufacture.)

Now, I’m not sure what benefits could be brought by charging different prices for different films, but I do know that films in theaters are, by and large, not worth the price of admission.  For all the industry talk of movies still being a good deal, I don’t see it.  It costs a lot to see a movie these days.  I definitely think that films should be cheaper (especially as they are competing with ‘free’).

Let’s just do a quick thought experiment, using food as our guide.

A film that costs 200 million dollars had better appeal to a lot of people if it’s going to make your money back, so let’s assume that this film is the McDonalds of movies.  It’s quick, it’s easy, it looks great in the poster and we know what we’re getting; it fills us up, even if it never quite satisfies.

On the other hand, there’s the 10 million dollar prestige picture.  This one is a little more complicated, has a few more ingredients.  We still know what we’re going to get, but maybe there’s a little foreign influence or a surprise ingredient.  This film is maybe the Cheesecake Factory of movies.  The portions are huge and satisfying and the food actually looks like it does on the menu.  This film still appeals to a lot of people, but it’s not the kind of place you go to all the time.  This is a going out to dinner place.

Then we get a 3 million dollar or less film, which could be complex or not; it may look great, or it may look like shit; it could be high art, or Clerks.  This is your family run restaurant.  The food could be excellent (or awful) simple fast food, like tacos or burgers.  Or it could be a three star restaurant with an excellent chef creating new foods that may be so groundbreaking, that it would take a critical understanding of Japanese food to understand how good it is.

Now, we pay differently for all this food and have different wants and expectations when we go into any of these restaurants.  What I’m finding interesting as I write it down is that it seems to be sort of reverse economics as far as cost goes.  McD makes a profit on its cheap burgers by keeping its costs down.  Why should the most expensive films be the ones expected to cost the least to see, but that’s what I would expect.  

The studios would look at it exactly the opposite, and they may be right too.  They would argue that the 200 million dollar film is an “event” movie, and deserving of more bucks.  It’s hard to argue with 200 million dollars.

Either way, I think there is room for maneuvering.  A three million dollar film with a lower price would definitely be able to compete better against the 200 million dollar film at regular price.  You need more people to see it to get your money back, but that’s the whole point, isn’t it?  

Plus, there’s the idea of “Price Image”, which is a jargon used by supermarkets and such to identify the correlation between the price of something and its perceived quality because of that price.  For example, if sushi is cheap, it would be perceived as lower quality.  So, if you charged more for your “prestige” film, you might get your price image up there, and appeal to the people out there seeking quality.  

Or a studio film that is tanking, might offer some incentives to get people in to see it.

You see, none of this is an option because the value of seeing a film is the same, no matter what film it is.  Would you pay more to see a good film?  It’s such a shot in the dark when you pay for a film, who knows?  Even the best reviewed films suck sometimes.  And the other way around.   And it is so ingrained in our minds that a movie costs a certain amount, I don’t know that you could get around that, but maybe you could.  I don’t know.  Just some ideas.

Dr. No

Dr. No cost a million dollars. That’s just under 8 million in today’s dollars, and about 40 or so if you go by the inflation rate of producing a film, as opposed to the consumer price index. But I still find this number to be astounding, especially considering all the came after it.

On the commentary on the DVD, they talk about how they had no money and worked with a small crew and basically made a 5 million dollar movie for a million dollars. Watching it, you can’t argue with that. One of the sets, a simple round ceiling window with a grate was created because, basically, Ken Adams had run out of money. It’s one of his signature sets, a classic.

They squeezed every last penny out of the budge using every piece of ingenuity and experience that they had. Even in the editing, they sped up the film and jump cut some of the action sequences. Sean Connery was nobody at the time. The action sequences are barely there. What’s really amazing to me is that it’s the James Bond character itself that carries the film. A lot of geniuses worked on this film, but what makes you love the film is watching James Bond operate. He sees the trap coming, then walks into it because he knows that’s where the fun is. He knows the girl tried to kill him, so he fucks her before handing her to the police. He even shoots a bad guy in the back. He’s just a fun, cool character to spend a couple hours with.

He’s just such a charismatic character. There must have been nothing like him at the time, because he’s still pretty singular. Even now, they’ve changed the character into something less than it was and more generic. They don’t mess around with brooding back story, or even a character arc. They just keep the story moving.

All I’m saying is that sometimes genius and experience get you further than a big budget.

3-D

Talk about cynicism. What’s Hollywood’s answer to declining box office and DVD sales? 3-D! Why? Forget about it being about making a new art form. They like 3-D because they can charge more! They like it because it costs them almost nothing to turn their computer animated crap into 3-D. They like it because it’s for kids and kids see more movies than adults.

Will it work? It will, in the short term, earn them more money on their kids films. As a solution to all their problems, it’s not even going to scratch their itch. And even if it did, TVs are now shipping as 3D ready.

I never got 3-D anyway. Movies work in part because they are sort of 3-D anyway. It’s part of the illusion of film itself. 3-D is just a gimmick. Don’t you love that when Hollywood gets threatened, they pull out the same old tricks that didn’t work in the first place? As long as they make a little more money, they really don’t give a shit.

writing and cynicism

I write a love story in virtually every film I write. Why not? It’s what life is about, isn’t it? It’s what makes life special. Men and women spend their whole lives thinking about it, dreaming of falling in love and when it happens, it’s the best thing to happen to a person; it’s heaven on earth, nothing else seems to matter.   So it makes sense that a film would want to end at that moment when love is fully realized between two people, when they’ve reached that dizzying height of togetherness, when they’ve finally reached paradise and returned to Eden.

You see, it doesn’t get any better than that. In fact, it’s all downhill after that. I mean, as wonderful and complicated as what comes next may be, no matter how great the marriage is, things start to settle down. Reality starts to poke its ugly face in. You get old. You start to wonder if this is all there is. You get the idea.

The film business is enough to make anyone cynical. You kill yourself writing a script only to find out no one wants to make that kind of film. You bust your ass trying to convince financiers that you will pour your soul into making this film and they look at their marketing team and ask them how much your star will bring in on DVD. Your film gets cut, compromised, dumped, dumped on, misunderstood, mischaracterized. Your blood and guts is what makes the red carpet red – it’s the audience stepping on your heart.

And maybe they’ll like it, but then, what does that mean? I’ll never forget a comment on my film that someone wrote on the internet: “I loved this movie! It was the best film I’ve seen since Nurse Betty!” It’s nice that they liked it, but I hated Nurse Betty.

As you get older in this business, and you see more stuff happen for reasons that usually have nothing to do with the quality or the art of a film, it would be very easy to stop caring. Why should you care so much about film? Nobody else does. I mean, sure they care about which stars you’ve met, but they don’t really care. There was an interview with William Freidkin about the French Connection where he was talking about how dangerous it was to do that car chase. He said something like, “I don’t think a film is worth the life of one ant, but at the time, I didn’t feel like that.” I’m sure he knows this, but you can tell watching his films. In fact, you can see almost exactly when, in which film, he stopped caring that much.

For a film to be good, you have to care that much. The script has to come from a passionate place. It has to be executed with love, uncynically. Characters in it can be cynical, but you cannot be. Cynical writers write characters that show rather than do.   It’s like an actor doing pantomime, you understand it, but he’s showing you the emotion, not feeling it.  An actor needs to do something to be believable, not show it.  He has to experience it.  The writer has to do this too.

YOU CANNOT FAKE THIS!

How do you prevent yourself from getting cynical, or reverse it once you’ve become cynical? It’s not easy, and sometimes it’s impossible not to be, but I think it comes back to that love story. Because when those characters meet and start to fall for each other, it’s an incredible feeling and it’s a wonderful thing to watch. People are different in a lot of ways, but it is emotions that makes this stuff sing. It’s complicated, but once you’ve created that love or that other emotion, it’s as if you’ve experienced it at the same time.  Through the magic of a film, or reading, that experience is communicated, emotionally.

I’m married.  I’ll probably never fall in love again, but that feeling of falling in love, I can get a little of it every time I write it.  It’s hard to be cynical when you experience this stuff.  Watch a great film and you’ll see it, not just the promise of young love, but also the promise of what film can be.  And really, what else matters?