By Roy Sevilla Ho
Manila – It has been a lingering condition that has been spoken about in the last decade. However, a cursory glance at the lineup in your local theaters will tell you that – just maybe – it has finally come true: the death knell has been rung and the studio dramas are dead.
Crime stories like Goodfellas and Fargo. Psychological thrillers like The Talented Mr. Ripley and The Silence of the Lambs. Dark suburban dramas like American Beauty and Revolutionary Road. These mid-level dramas, as the industry calls them, were a staple of the industry. Almost assuredly films that would feature the biggest Hollywood stars and its most respected directors at the helm. They crowded the theaters just as much as they monopolized the Oscar nominations at year’s end.
But there has been a steady decline of such films in recent years, tossed over the top ropes of the film slate, like jobbers in the Royal Rumble. At the top of the heap are superhero movies, science fiction, horror and even animated fare. Instead of venerated auteurs like Francis Ford Coppola and Woody Allen, they’ve been superseded by genre geniuses (genii?) like Denis Villeneuve and Christopher Nolan as the most respected directors in the industry. Last we saw Sir Anthony Hopkins he was helping the Transformers and the next time we see Nicole Kidman, she will be playing Aquaman’s mermaid warrior queen mother. And God knows what ever happened to Dustin Hoffman.
Shiny New Toys
There are several factors that have led to the fall of the the mid-level dramas, an assault that came from many angles leading to a war of attrition and a slow and steady defeat.
Hollywood by nature has always been an industry of spectacle. From its early inception, it was the sprawling westerns that drew the crowds. Then came the sword and sandal epics. But it was the release of Star Wars (Ironically for the purposes of this article, also known as Star Wars: A New Hope) that elevated science fiction above the domain of Roger Corman and the “B-movies”. With Star Wars, the box office returns were augmented by massive merchandising sales, a juggernaut that continues to this day. And so a new model for the Hollywood Blockbuster was molded, where boffo revenue was made beyond just ticket sales and home video release.
The special effects extravaganzas that were born from this new model would mean bigger budgets and consequently constituted a greater investment risk. Soon enough the studios stopped thinking in terms of single films but of franchises, where the potential for sequels means multiplying the profits from an established audience. And, finally, in recent years the advent of the “shared universe” became the overriding strategy, with potential revenue growing exponentially. These now command the bulk of a studios multi-million budgets earmarked for film slates that have been already planned out over the course of the next few years. Because of the size of these investments, the studios needed to guarantee as much profit as possible, so Hollywood has become the domain of the recycled ideas, intellectual properties that have found success in other media and has a built in fanbase, such as comic books, novels, television series and video games. (There is reportedly a film trilogy being developed based on Tetris.)
The situation was further compounded by an audience that has moved on to other sources for their drama fix. Television expands with new cable channels by the day and, with the rise of digital services like Netflix, has provided a home for these orphaned stories.
Matt Damon, in an interview with metro.co.uk talks about a conversation he had with director Steven Soderbergh, who said that if he had made their Golden Globe-nominated film The Informant! today, it would most probably have been an HBO movie. Damon also laments the demise of the cinematic studio dramas, but finds hope in the prospects on the smaller screen.
“It’s a bummer for me because my bread and butter was those movies, those dramas, but there are lots migrating to TV.” Damon said. “Television is really experiencing this renaissance and they’ve got these incredible writers who have so much more power on television than they did in the film world and they’re writing incredible stories.”
And so it might mean perhaps is time to evolve as moviegoers and film practitioners because the lines in the cinemas are still full and more and more people I know are learning the joys of binge-watching shows. Or at least roll with the punches. If there is one thing we’ve learned, cinema, like fashion, endures in cycles. And the demand for these films have not abated. It has just been redirected to avenues once thought less glamorous. Because, just as much as nature abhors a vacuum, so does Hollywood. And so does our simple yearning for a good story.
About the writer: Roy Sevilla Ho is a Manila-based movie writer and director. His blog, ZAPRUDER, is the same name for his entertainment and culture column of The Freeman Newspaper in Cebu in the late 1990s. ZAPRUDER is named after Abraham Zapruder, the most famous accidental film maker who shot a home video and inadvertently captured the assassination of Pres. Kennedy. Roy, by organic constitution, is not an accidental filmmaker. Begin to enjoy his blog and catch him on Twitter @roysevillaho.