When Robin Williams took his own life ending what was perhaps one of the most celebrated careers in Hollywood history, the world stopped and took notice of Williams and his incredibly diverse body of work. It pained many to know that someone who had such a profound influence on so many lives through his acting in many different genres was no more. It was worldwide heartbreak.
Recalling Robin Williams body of work was nostalgic for many. It was a period in Hollywood where creative expression was at its best and where Williams was one of the best at it. What died with Robin Williams was not only a beautiful soul capable of touching so many but a creative spirit that showed audiences worldwide how powerful unique expression through cinema could be.
The cinema of the Robin Williams era has died too.
In its place: expensive sequels, remakes, comic book adaptations and franchises. Put differently, tent poles and just about ONLY expensive tent poles. And before you rush to blame Hollywood for its lack of creativity, you’re better off looking at those who remain ultimately responsible: Wall Street.
Movie making has always been a risky business requiring a lot of up front financing and financial expertise. Hollywood has always relied on the investor class, hedge funds and banking institutions for capital arrangements. However in the past the two arenas remained separate. The creatives made decisions about content, the investors made decisions about how to leverage their financing arrangements to support their vision.
Today the lines have become blurred, as the investor class like Sony’s Daniel Loeb take an increasingly active approach to what does and does not get made and how the studios are run.
Wall Street bankers have taken over the creative reigns through the threat of scissoring the purse strings.
After the recession, financing became much tighter and as a result Hollywood struggled to fund its projects. Reeling from the losses related to mortgages and toxic debt securities many in finance were looking for a new gig. The promise of large returns with a low tax rate was very attractive to investors and so they began pouring their money into financing arrangements with filmmakers. One of the best examples of this being Thomas Tull’s Legendary Pictures and its former relationship with Warner Brothers (now Universal).
Thomas Tull, once a former finance professional and tax services executive is now a Hollywood power player. While Mr. Tull’s Blockbusters tend to be of quality, they’re all Blockbusters, there’s no middle ground. Tull’s success suddenly became the road-map everyone wanted to follow. After a decade or so of billion dollar grossing films, it’s all anybody wanted to make. The smaller properties were just not going to continue pushing the studios earnings, and consequentially their Wall Street overlords profits higher. Everything had to make ridiculous money or no one wanted to fund it.
The only motivation by these folks is increasing the bottom line. While that has always been the case, it is taken to its logical extreme. They have begun to make creative decisions in an extremely myopic fashion and that has in turn led to the current state of affairs. Studios have been re-arranged, entire departments shut, major players fired and the release slate squeezed. Most resources are spent on large comic book properties and established franchises leaving few dollars left for original properties. If an original does get made, it gets made for very little and the marketing budget is usually squeezed because of limited resources for riskier ventures.
Wall Street doesn’t even care so much whether Americans go and see the films they fund as long as China does. International Box Office has never been more important. Hollywood doesn’t make movies for Americans any more. They would rather have the most homogenous project possible to export so as to not suffer translation issues. Explosions need no translations, complex story does. Homogeneity reduces cultural bias and view points and has the tendency to please just about everyone because nobodies sensibilities are offended.
Take Robin Williams THE BIRDCAGE for instance. The film routinely took pot shots at the religious prejudice of the Right Wing of American politics. Today Wall Street decision makers could see offending the Right Wing as leaving money on the table. If they are offended then you will get bad word of mouth in that community, controversy, a Bill O’Reilly moral crusade and most importantly as a result: less money. The concept of a uniquely American sense of humor also does not bode well for international sales. China isn’t going to get jokes about Jed Bush. They also despise homosexuality, so that’s a negative right off the bat for cultural exportation.
In the current risk adverse climate of Hollywood, a film like THE BIRDCAGE would never get made. That is problematic because what that also says is, “we don’t care about having the next Robin Williams.” It additionally says they do not care about diversity. They want as little risk as possible. And this business plan has worked brilliantly so far.
The investment banking culture is pervasive. And if you know anything about days of trading losses this past year for major banks like JP Morgan (hint: zero), you can imagine how they feel about looser movies. As a result they have made the current state of affairs only about winners. Where tent pole earnings used to off-set risk for smaller projects, they are now the only sort of film in existence.
The current culture of business figures that if folks want originality, they can watch TV or finance it themselves. In fact most original properties distributed by the major studios were independently financed and made outside the system. This strategy has led to a decline in ticket sales in North America, but as long as the money keeps pouring in from abroad, things are unlikely to change.
Algorithms are more likely to determine what you see on screen than a creative assessing the quality of a project. Just about every aspect of Wall street has been brought to Sunset Boulevard down to the computers that make decisions.
The only people that are happy with this are those counting the money. I don’t think you can find me one creative who thinks the current state of affairs is a good thing for Hollywood. People didn’t get into this business to have a computer tell them what a good movie is. Creative people know what’s best and what people want to see but Wall Street won’t let them make decisions.
My philosophy is as follows: stop letting these carpet baggers run the industry into the ground. Because just like they did with every industry before, they will crash it into the ground and eject with a golden parachute while the rest of the industry is left to sift through the wreckage. The current model of blockbuster or bust is absolutely unsustainable, just like the housing bubble was.
Creative industries will always come with risk no matter how many computers say otherwise. We need to again embrace creative expression at its best, the sort of films that made us smile, like Robin Williams films did. Williams remains popular to this day as a legend because of the characters and worlds he was a part of, they were all memorable. Today everything suffers from sameness where one white guy looks just like the other white guys and where women and people of color have little role at all in our films. 300 explosions later and you can barely recall any degree of substance of what you just saw.
Kick the carpet baggers out! If they don’t like what they’re investing in, they can invest elsewhere. Creatives need to run the show, not Wall Street. And with every Wall Street carpet bagger that leaves, there will be money to follow because everyone wants to be a part of show business.
Let’s make it again about the business of show, because right now it has became the business of Wall Street. And it is not Wall Street and their paint by numbers filmmaking that wll bring this world the next Robbin Williams. Time to take the industry back to people who know it, throw the carpet baggers out because it’s Hollywood, California not Wall Street, California.