At the opening of a new media center at USC Wednesday, the men responsible for six of the 20 highest-grossing movies of all time (eight, adjusted for inflation) issued a stern warning to Hollywood about the scourge of their industry: blockbuster movies. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, who have directed and/or produced Star Wars movies, Indiana Jones movies, Transformers movies, E.T., Jurassic Park, and Jaws, are concerned — very concerned — that it’s getting more and more difficult these days to make “really interesting, deeply personal” movies, because Hollywood would rather invest in big event movies with the potential to turn giant profits. Can you imagine such a thing?
“You’re at the point right now where a studio would rather invest $250 million in one film for a real shot at the brass ring,” Spielberg said at the panel, “than make a whole bunch of really interesting, deeply personal — and even maybe historical — projects that may get lost in the shuffle because there’s only 24 hours.” He predicts dire consequences: “There’s going to be an implosion where three or four or maybe even half a dozen of these mega-budgeted movies are going to go crashing into the ground, and that’s going to change the paradigm again.”
Spielberg bemoaned the shifts that have already occurred, between the long runs of his early-‘80s heyday (“If it was a hit, it was a year long. Raiders was in theaters for a year. E.T. was in a theater for a year and four months… That was an amazing situation back then”) and the tiny window that now exists between theatrical and home viewing. “There’s going to be eventually day and date with movies,” Spielberg warned (and there already is, for many indie releases), “and eventually there’s going to be a price variance. You’re going to have to pay $25 to see the next Iron Man. And you’re probably only going to have to pay $7 to see Lincoln.”
On this point, Lucas piped up: “I think eventually the Lincolns are going to go away and they’re going to be on television.” To which Spielberg responded, “And mine almost was! This close. Ask HBO — this close!”
Let’s make one thing clear before getting to the crux of the matter: at this point in his career, Spielberg should be able to basically make whatever movie he wants. Lincoln was a thoughtful, character-driven, intelligent picture, the kind studios should make more of, and the fact that he was basically only able to get it made because (as The Atlantic notes) he has his own infrastructure is sad. That’s a problem. Spielberg should, in 2013, get some leeway — and he’s making legitimate points about the way Hollywood’s constant state of grabbing for the next giant tentpole has squeezed out mid-level flicks. Everything either costs $250 million or $1 million; it’s the moviemaking equivalent of the disappearing middle class.
What’s infuriating about this little diatribe is that it’s coming from the two men who are, it could be argued, more personally responsible than anyone for the current state of the business. The last great era of studio backing for “really interesting, deeply personal” movies was the 1970s, when the majors were funding the likes of The Godfather, Chinatown, The Conversation, Five Easy Pieces, A Clockwork Orange, All the President’s Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Nashville, and even Lucas’s own American Graffiti. And the overwhelming, record-breaking success of two movies brought that era to an end: Steven Spielberg’s Jaws and George Lucas’s Star Wars. Their films, with their giant grosses and something-for-everyone style, ended up putting their ‘70s contemporaries like Robert Altman, Hal Ashby, William Friedkin, Peter Bogdanovich, Francis Ford Coppola, and Martin Scorsese all but out of business. “Star Wars swept all the chips off the table,” Friedkin told Peter Biskind, in his invaluable book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. “What happened with Star Wars was like when McDonald’s got a foothold, the taste for good food just disappeared. Now we’re in a period of devolution. Everything has gone backward toward a big sucking hole.”
Even if you don’t share Friedkin’s dim view of their work and what it has wrought (and it should be noted that these men have made good, even great, movies), there’s no denying that the current reach for the “brass ring” of Avatar and Avengers-sized grosses is a direct result of the ways in which Jaws and Star Wars changed the business. If the monster got out of these two Dr. Frankensteins’ control, it doesn’t mean that they’re blameless for its creation, so the idea of two billionaire purveyors of the blockbuster mentality whining about the pervasiveness of the blockbuster mentality looks, sounds, and smells like what it is: bullshit. The most telling comment of the day came from Lucas: “We’re talking Lincoln and Red Tails — we barely got them into theaters. You’re talking about Steven Spielberg and George Lucas can’t get their movie into a theater.” So there you have it. When Altman and Ashby and Friedkin couldn’t get their movies into a theater because of Spielberg and Lucas, no problem. But now that the chickens have come home to roost, these guys have noticed the sky is falling.