Thursday, March 11, 2010

Hollywood Supremacy

The Academy Award winners for this year have just been announced three days ago. I’m not gonna blog about them here like other bloggers did. Instead, it kinda inspires me to think about how powerful the Hollywood machine is, as a driver of the American culture supremacy in the world.

These days, people inside and outside of China are talking about the rise of the country on the world stage. China itself also senses that in order to become a real ‘world’ power, it should also have a strong ‘soft power’. I’m not gonna talk much about the current status of China’s ‘soft power’, cos I really don’t know much. All I can see is that, it still has a long way to go. So, I’m just wanna talk about American’s soft power, and Hollywood is regarded as a symbol of that.

In terms of the soft power of a country, actually it includes sports, intellectual properties, and others. For here, when I mention ‘Hollywood’, it is not just about movies, I really mean the entertainment industry aka. the ‘showbiz’ in general.

Though we know that American’s financial well being is in trouble, and some people are talking about the decline of an empire. In spite of those troubles, American’s showbiz is still mighty strong on both domestic and international fronts. Its influence is still prevalent. We all acknowledge that national security, wealth and health are all important, but when those relatively ‘boring’ aspect are kinda settled, showbiz does have its strong presence in the psychic of most people. Looking at it on a microscopic level in a society, regular people do look for entertainments after works either in good times or bad times. For me, I have no statistics or data to support my views, certainly if people are interested, there are tons of materials that can be googled.

American Showbiz is making tens of billions each year. It is not just because of its huge size, it is also the exponential power it generated by tying different components in the entertainment industry together to create the “1 + 1 > 2” effect that showbiz in other countries can only dream about.

Let’s start with movies. Unlike many countries which are subsidized or highly regulated by governments, American movie industry has been very well-developed with its own system that has functioned properly for years. Hollywood is run by studios which are owned privately by many media giants (like Fox, Paramount, Universal, etc) with arms in many other industries. Studios have systems and well-established relationship with unions of professionals playing various roles in movie making. Certainly the different components of the showbiz are smoothened by ‘oil’ aka money and stuck by ‘glue’ aka rules that are fed by lawyers and accountants. As such, professionals can feel comfortable to do their jobs and make their money in the showbiz.

Hollywood studios need money and talents to make movies. With profitable movies, they make their money and attract talents to join the industry. It has been so far an upward spiral cycle. Yes, they have their share of trouble like their stubborn fight of piracy and all that. However, the system has been working pretty well on both money and talent fronts. Hollywood studios with their sheer size reap most of their profit from their ‘blockbusters’, which are ‘tent poles’ of weekends in the summer season that has been started earlier in recent years (currently it start as early as late April and end by August end). Each week in summer, you will see blockbusters got released, sometimes studios competes in certain weekends head on, sometimes they simply leave one alone to own the weekend’s box office. Blockbusters are expensive investments which are used to budgets over $100M, some of recent one could reach to $300M or more (Avatar was rumor to cost $500M). Some blockbusters will also be released in other times of the year if they can’t be stuff in the packed summer months, so as to keep people going to movie all through the year.

This blockbuster trend started with Jaws back in the 70s, and has been working for the decades since. Many blockbusters then got developed into franchises, namely making sequels or prequels to become trilogy, tetralogy, etc. As the cost of making potential blockbusters is high, once a formula works, studios just find it nonsense to let go until it can milk the last cent of it. Also, technically it is cheaper to produce sequels in spite of the potential higher price the stars may charge; the marketing cost and technical cost are relatively lower. As the risks on those sides are hedged, so sequels are usually easier to get green light to go. On top of that, if studios smell potential of developing a movie franchise, it will sign stars for the whole franchise rather than re-negotiating their salary once the first movie becomes a hit. Also, studios intends to use those so-called ‘up and coming’ actors to start in franchise. On the surface of it is to grow new talent, it is true but the lower price they charge is the usually the real deal.

Those franchises are typically, but not limited to the action/sci-fi genre, it also includes horror, comedy, and others as well, basically any movie that make good money. Usually, movies will become franchise are those with recurring character(s) (e.g. Die Hard, Matrix¸ Lethal Weapons, etc) or themes (e.g. Screams, Final Destination, etc). As those franchises age, they can’t be milked as much money as before, they will decline eventually. However, as time goes by, Hollywood studios in the recent years start to ‘reboot’ old franchises, like the Batman, Star Trek, and Nightmare on Elm Street. Studios give new life to those franchises with younger faces and the advancement of technology, especially CG. Once the movie is successful, then here we go sequels again.

Studios don’t just make money from the movies, they have a very well developed downstream and peripherals that tied to those movies as a network. You can say that each blockbuster or franchise is really a business by itself. After the movie is shown in cinema, the movie will be shown in pay-per-view, cable, networks, and regional TV stations continuously in years to come. It will be distributed online, on Blu-ray, DVD as well. Also, there are tons of movie-related products, a movie can be spin to novel, comic, soundtrack, online/console games, toys, merchandises, and theme park rides. Consider the above components be applied both U.S. domestically and internationally, the $$$ generated from a franchise is just huge! I’ve not even mentioned what role ‘creative’ accounting can be played in the bottom lines calculation.

So, where are those franchises coming from? Hollywood studios have never exhausted of idea. As all media is well tied in the same ecosystem. Certainly, there is some originality in their ideas here and there, like Avatar had been on Jim Cameron’s mind for 15 years. However, there are also many sources for creating potential blockbusters. Movie makers will go to novels (like books by John Grisham and Michael Crichton), comic books (characters from Marvel and DC Comics), old TV shows (Fugitive, 24?), real life characters in news (Nixon, Mandela, etc) to get ideas. Also, they have money to buy right of scripts all over the world and do remake as well (e.g. The Ring, The Departed). Once a blockbuster is born, the whole business based upon will grow as I mentioned above. The cross cultivation of media as a result of those blockbusters actually set up a very successful foundation for business for years to come. For example, when the movie Silence of the Lamb became a success, not only the novel was selling well, it even pushes Thomas Harris, the author of the novel, to start writing new novel with the idea in mind for movie-making, as current available script for the main character has been running out after the prequel and sequel of the novel were made into movies.

Thousands year before, people are sitting at the temple steps, looking at the Statue of Greek gods, and listen to elders to talk about those legendary myths. These days, Hollywood not only churn out its own mythical heroes (like Spiderman, Matrix’s Neo, etc), it also embraces mythical stories of all cultures (Harry Potters, Mulan, 300, etc) and transform them into its own products, then spread across the globe.

As it is mentioned above, Hollywood studios live on blockbusters, but their system is smart enough to cultivate talents as well. They can only make so many blockbusters in a year, so they use some profits from the blockbusters to support smaller films. Certainly, there is a well-established Indies film culture in the U.S., like the famous Sundance festival. Studios not only pick films from those festivals, but more importantly, recruit behind the scene talents from there to make movies for the studios. Those talents are relatively cheap and fresh with creativity. If established actors saw and like those Indies films, they won’t mind to work with those Indies green directors on studios’ films. Studios will assign smaller budgets for those green directors to make small films to fill the off seasons. If they are good enough, they may make films that aimed to compete for Oscars or other awards. If those movies win any award, they will usually turn to profit in box-office at the end. If not, it may still to reap some money back on DVD, cable, etc. Green behind the scene talents are not just from Indies film festivals. They can be established directors who are already successful aboard (e.g. John Woo, Hideo Nakata), or they can be from making music videos before (e.g. Michael Bay), or even from making Youtube video for God sake! Like that guy, who makes the alien invasion clip from Uruguay, just became a protégé of Sam Raimi, the director of Spiderman, after his clip became a hit on the net and also passed around in Hollywood.

On the screen wise, Hollywood has not lacked of talents, besides the established stars, there are thousands of young people are lining up for opportunity to be in movies. Just go to any restaurants in L.A., you can find very pretty young men and women who are part-time waiters and waitress, aspiring to be actors and actresses. Indeed, many famous stars and starlets were in their shoes before. There is just no shortage of acting talents, besides from movies, don’t forget that Hollywood also get actors and actresses from TV (e.g. Tim Allen¸ Jennifer Aniston) or Broadway (e.g. Kevin Spacey, Nathan Lane) as well. On top of those homegrown pools, studios also recruit famous actors and actresses from aboard to be in Hollywood films to conquest the oversea markets that the stars are coming from (e.g. Chow Yun Fat, Salma Hayek, and Jet Li).

Hollywood studios also wisely cultivate new generation of up-and-coming actors and actresses by pairing them with older established stars in movies as well to bring them up to the audiences (e.g. pairing Brad Pitt with Harrison Ford in The Devin’s Own, Edward Norton and Richard Gere in Primal Fear). Doing that way, it can make sure there will be news herds of stars to hold the baton from older generations of stars. So, you can see there are stars among all age groups in Hollywood to make sure they are all covered to meet the needs of different movies. In recent years, that not only expands along age line, but also on races as well. Yes, though power of Hollywood remains in the hands of White men, they are liberally enough to understand that as long as the movies are making the ‘green’, it doesn’t matter those in movies are black or white or yellow.

Hollywood studios have established or support all kinds of awards to brush up the ‘fame’ side of their people and products. Whether the awards are determined by the ‘so-called’ people (like People’s Choice Award) or by insiders (Academy Awards), it doesn’t really matter. Cos, it is all about making their people famous which have ultimately effect on bringing in audiences to see their movies after all. With years go by, those awards had become more established and gained prestige along the way, so they become widely recognizable in the world, everybody in movie industry all over the world regards getting those awards, or even being nominated¸ are such an honor that, they are getting more and more willing to be recruited by Hollywood to be part of this giant money-making machine.

As Hollywood’s movies have global markets, studios are able to afford large paychecks to its actors/actresses. The money that the tier-1 stars make is just astronomical. Though the actual amount that really goes to a star’s pocket is only about half what they are reported as what he/she is paid for starring a movie. For example, when Mr. so and so is paid $20M for a picture, he only pocketed about $10M for real. All the rest goes to paying tax, accountant, lawyer, agent, assistants etc. Kinda like the star is the lead of a pack of wolfs, when a star is hired for a movie, actually a team of people is on payroll indirectly as well. Also, with the mighty work of studio finance, some stars would pay less up front but share basis points of profit from the movie with their faces on. That had been working well for the stars for many years. Jack Nicholson had reportedly made $50M from starring in Batman back in late 80s with such arrangement. Since then many stars have followed. However, studios are not stupid enough to let the agencies of stars to hijack the profit of their products. They do start to hedge their blockbusters in many ways, like using younger actors (Shia LeBeouf and Megan Fox in Transformers, signing them for a whole franchise, going into animation (e.g. Shrek) or creating franchise based on characters that are less dependent on stars (e.g. Spiderman, Hulk), etc. As a result, Hollywood studios are still able to make great money steadily. I don’t see there is any other movie industry outside Hollywood will be as organized, financially creative and successful in my lifetime.

With the global reach and commercial power of Hollywood, anything related to it are magnified and gain acceptance in different parts of the world and does become part of modern culture. Hollywood movies and its peripherals in different media just embedded with American values and products that affect the people all over the world. Hollywood’s value became the de facto standard of fame to be measured against. It affects what many people like, what they buy, what they aspire to become. Some people in those so-called rouge states may hate the U.S. government, but their kids will undoubtedly find Mickey Mouse cute, and wanna play with a Bumblebee toy. Wonder why some Asian women dyed their hair blond, and you rarely see blond girls dyed their hair black except those into gothic? Wonder why those Italian fashion designers can charge hefty premium on their products? Wonder not why but what women are modeled after in plastic surgery for beauty? Wonder when did Rap, an American ghetto culture, become a hit among young people of all creeds globally even for those whose relationship to ghetto is like human to giant squid? All these can be explained by the far reach of American’s ‘super soft power’ spreading by its arm in the name of Hollywood.

With the money-making machine keep making ‘ka-ching’ sound and the continuous upgrade in technology (e.g. the latest craze of 3D), Hollywood will continue to attract talents to make more movies and make more profits. Regardless of what some people say, I just don’t see how Hollywood supremacy will demise any time soon. Cos, Hollywood itself is really a product of its society and culture. Unless, there is similar soil elsewhere, I just don’t see any serious competitor that can potentially replace it. Furthermore, I guess that if Hollywood ‘smells’ similar soil somewhere, rather than letting a competitor to grow, Hollywood will probably transplant itself there and devour the budding competitor by all means. From the potential competitor’s point of view, if it can’t fight Hollywood, why doesn’t it just join Hollywood and become part of it? I think that would be more likely to happen and those competitor may even be willingly devoured by Hollywood with a false sense of honor! Kinda like a fish swim inside the mouth of a whale!

I guess this is the longest blog I’ve ever written. Hopefully, it won’t bore anyone. Just wonder how many people are patiently enough to read it through till here. If you are, I just wanna say ‘thanks’!

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