Rob Edelman: Money Talks

Mar 10, 2014

A constant refrain that I’ve been hearing from movie lovers for years is: How come Hollywood does not produce more high-quality films-- films that are script and character-driven, and that are not overloaded with generally mindless content? This is a fair question. And it is one with a simple answer. That answer is a one-word answer. That one word is: money.

As proof, let’s take a look at the various Best Picture Oscar-nominated films for 2013. All these films came to movie theaters at various times between September, when a number of them played the Toronto, Venice, and Telluride film festivals, and the final days of December. During this time, and in the weeks and months since, their stars and directors have been hyping them at other film festivals and premieres and on TV talk shows. Plus, many have been winning awards from this film critics group or that film society or film board.

Given all their hype, and their Oscar nominations, they occasionally even have been re-released to theaters. One example of this is Dallas Buyers Club.

But the subject here is money, and the bottom line is that Hollywood is an industry. So it should be no surprise that, within the industry, films are referred to as “product.” In this regard, movies are no different from automobiles or beer or bathroom tissue.

OK now, let’s take a look at the box office figures for a number of the best films of 2013. Despite all the hype and media coverage, Dallas Buyers Club, as of the end of February, had been in theatrical release for 17 weeks and had taken in $24-million-plus in domestic box office. Nebraska, in release for 15 weeks, had earned $16-million-plus. Philomena, in release for 14 weeks, had earned $32-million-plus. 12 Years A Slave, the eventual Best Picture Oscar winner, had been in release for 19 weeks and had earned $49-million. All Is Lost, which did not earn a Best Picture Oscar nod but easily might have, had taken in just $6-million after 19 weeks in release

A key here is that none of these films are escapist entertainment. These are films that are fashioned to make the viewer think. Respectively, they tells the stories of a man who becomes an activist after being diagnosed with AIDS; an elderly man dealing with a range of issues, including his unrealized dreams; an elderly woman who was brutally victimized in her youth and who embraces the power of forgiveness; a black man who is kidnapped and stripped of his freedom; and an older man who is all alone, and is struggling to survive on the open sea. In other words, these are not the escapist films that the masses will savor while munching on popcorn on a Saturday night at the movies.

Now let’s compare them to what I would call franchise movies: movies that are name brands, that are based on popular comic books or graphic novels or are sequels to popular hits. After only three weeks in release, The LEGO Movie had taken in a whopping $183-million. The LEGO Movie may be a fine film, or it may not be. What matters here is that one easily can imagine millions of Lego-loving youngsters demanding that their parents take them to see The LEGO Movie.

Another example is The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, in release for 14 weeks, which had earned $423-million-plus. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, in release for 11 weeks, had earned $256-million-plus.

Sure, some of the Oscar-caliber films did do well box-office-wise: The Wolf Of Wall, earning $112-million; American Hustle, with $144-million; Gravity, with $269-million; and Captain Phillips, with $106-million. However, I would bet that, in these cases, mere content won out over quality. The Wolf Of Wall and American Hustle spotlight sex and excess, which are marketable commodities. Despite its intelligent storytelling, Gravity features some dazzling special effects. Meanwhile, at its core, Captain Phillips is little more than a Hollywood thriller.

Now granted, Oscar nominations and wins may add to a film’s box office numbers. But their generally thoughtful content will not automatically transform them into “franchise product.” 

Rob Edelman teaches film history at the University at Albany. He has written several books on film and television, and is an associate editor of Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide.

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