Simba Production

The Ever-Changing Face of The Movie Business

By Mark Ehrenkranz, NYFCS Series producer

As with every business, the film industry has always heeded Chuck Darwin’s creed of “Change or Die”, and the ability to adapt to revolutionary and evolutionary changes mostly from technological advancements. The talkies forced out actors who couldn’t transition from the silent era, and the rise of television in the 50’s created terror that audiences would stop going to the movie theater. VHS tapes caused more fear, but ended up revolutionizing the way movies got made by recouping and profiting by a second bite of the apple. Those rental tapes at Blockbuster had an average wholesale cost of $65, so between that, DVD and Blu-ray, the home entertainment divisions became the kings of the lot so that more movies could be made. Now, emerging technologies, mobile devices, and international markets, especially in China have become the new challenge.


A lot of companies are now owned or receive money from huge Chinese conglomerates such as real estate giant Dalian Wanda Group. The rules there are always changing due to the current world political climate and inherent cultural nuances.  In the U.S., Meghan Ellison, Larry Ellison’s (Oracle) billionaire daughter, just transitioned her project saving production company into a full-service distribution company. Her Annapurna Pictures is committed to producing movies that matter and made such greats as Zero Dark Thirty, Detroit, and American Hustle. 


Sundance Institute, the nonprofit behind the annual Sundance Film Festival, has come up with a new way to support young filmmakers who don’t want to sell the rights to their movies to distributors. It’s a Kickstarter for filmmakers who don’t have the same name recognition that Sundance has, especially when they might find it overwhelming to host a fundraiser themselves. Amongst the most high-profile changes lie with Amazon and Netflix. Hulu and Vimeo, (jointly-owned by Comcast, Disney, 21st Century Fox, and Time Warner), Apple, Facebook, Google’s YouTube, and others have also gotten into the film acquisition and movie producing business.


These changes are NOT the enemy to the business or movie theater going experience. Although a lot more projects such as Beasts of The Southern Wild are made via non-profit fiscal sponsors, filmmakers and their investors must turn a profit to survive. All of these entities provide financing or a forum by which movies can get made, acquired, find an audience and recoup or profit from. The folks who run Amazon Studios and Netflix are veteran movie guys who come from the early days and know the value of releasing a film in traditional and augmented ways. Bob Berney and Ted Hope of Amazon are two amazing champions of independent film and have long storied careers of making and releasing some of the best movies in recent times. 


Ted Sarandos of Netflix is also a giant in revolutionizing the commerce of movie viewing. His humble beginnings had him managing video store chains and working in distribution in Texas. They are infusing viability into movie making and offering substantial money for movies of all types to be released in theaters and on TV. Last year Amazon brought Manchester By The Sea to market and Netflix stewarded the critical darling By Hell or High Water. This year Netflix is making Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman with DeNiro and Pacino, while Amazon is making Beautiful Boy the David Sheff memoir about addiction starring Steve Carell. Ted feels that his company is not anti-theater or anti-cinema and thinks that the competition is good. He feels that movies will be more profitable if consumers had more choice and that although cinemas might lose a little, in total the movie business will be bigger and remain vital.


Ted Hope considers Amazon’s flood of investment in the movie business is designed to revive a market for independent films by blending traditional theatrical exhibition with the enormous marketing and distribution muscle provided by the e-commerce giant’s vast retail platform.  He believes that the era of being able to make ambitious films is alive and kicking. Amazon’s IMDb site is among the most highly trafficked spot on the Web for film buffs — and the company just committed to being a full-service theatrical distributor versus using other existing entities as they have done in the past. The key here for all new players is to provide a place where movies of quality can be made. Movies are not a widget business, and regardless of the size screen, they are on, if movies are exceptional and better than the bevy of quality TV programming, then people will want to see them.


Other big trends in the movie business are improving the overall movie going experience. One big factor is making the local theater a destination for all things film, event cinema, unique programming and not just new releases. The strongest survivors can thrive by offering things like creative repertory curation, guest speakers, film festivals and forums for local and regional filmmakers to gather as a community. Capital improvements are always a plus, along with the popularity and quality of the dine-in and an alcoholic beverage experience. Two more big impactors are the ability to provide good quality content for women and a mature audience. 


It’s nothing new but the business has woken up to the increasingly active female audience in cinemas. The big change is women’s intolerance of seeing male-focused movies. As a result, there is an increased supply of movies aimed at women. A possible reason might be that previous generations of women were more likely to put up with seeing movies targeted at men because men were expected to buy the tickets (and therefore more likely to choose the movie). Another factor is that it is mostly women who frequent similar art and cultural pursuits such as book clubs, are also big fans of enrichment and discovery projects. The push for women’s equality in the movie industry, especially as directors, has also given a stronger voice to females. Another huge factor is that life expectancy is also rising and a greater number of older people in the population at large also contribute to the vitality of the cinema. Older people are more active (physically and socially) than ever before, plus the Baby Boomer generation grew up on cinema. 


As with a great deal of other industries, success in the movie business is heavily reliant on societal and cultural climates and a great deal luck.  That’s not to criticize people’s talent, dedication, and hard work, but often those things are not enough. It takes several years to develop, produce, and release a movie which often renders it out of synch with a lightning paced world. A movie could be the perfect story, pedigree and have the biggest stars, but for whatever reason, the chemistry was a little off, or something big in the world was happening which affected it positively or negatively. Unlike a TV series or stage production, a movie does not have the luxury to adjust and rebound in future episodes or performances. 


Films are often miraculous and are willed into a magical existence, but frequently require overcoming a tremendous amount of inertia and being in the right place at the right time. Hard work, putting in the hours, not taking ‘no’ for an answer, researching how the business operates and keeping up on industry changes are a few. Applying for every fund or scheme, networking like there’s no tomorrow, begging for money, and someone connecting with your work are what it takes to flourish. A few elements might be directly affected, but most of it is out of our control, and that is a big reason why we so much love the mystery and wonderment of the movies.