“Hollywood” is on odd beast. In many ways it’s diverse and individual: directors, producers, actors and so on come together, make their film or their show, then go their separate ways. There are great pairings of directors with actors, actors with actors and so on, but this is relatively rare. Yet, ultimately, making a Hollywood movie is an expensive prospect and there are a relatively small number of, predominantly, white men that hold the purse strings and decide which projects get green-lit and so what we see.
While the projects are starting to get more diverse, there’s not really a lot of doubt that films led by men, and probably in particular white men, have an easier time of it.
One of the things we hear, from the Hollywood machine at a level that makes me think it’s the money men, is a practically rotating series of doubts about the future of the film industry.
We have “OMG, X will stop people going to the movies” - in my memory that’s been VCRs, DVDs and now Netflix (as the embodiment of streaming movies). While cinema attendance hasn’t been inexorably upwards, year on year, the overall trend has been ever upwards despite this complaint.
The one I want to think about in a bit more detail though is the common alternate complaint, the “lack of the sure fire movie star.” That’s not an actor whose name is in a starring role, but an actor who makes audiences show up and puts bums on seats and thus dollars through the box office, and in this modern world dollars back through the DVD and possibly the action figure and other merchandising too. If you listen to, or think of, the names you hear trotted out: Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Gary Cooper, John Wayne and so on, they’re all male and white. Hollywood would have us believe there are no stars like this any more and although they have more data than me I wonder if their preconceptions, their sexist and racist assumptions, are blinding them to the truth, or at least a partial truth.
The thing is, I don’t know there are any stars for whom I will go and see anything and everything they do. To that extent I do fall into the “no true guaranteed bums on seats” moan of the money men. However, there is a small list of stars where their involvement will certainly pique my interest and tip it from a maybe into a likely, a likely into a yes. A small number of those are white men. Tom Hiddleston, the late Alan Rickman. Some are men of colour. Denzel Washington, Vin Diesel, Morgan Freeman. Several are women: Eva Green, Emily Blunt, Jennifer Lawrence and Gemma Arterton. One is a woman of colour: Michelle Rodriguez. I might add Ruth Negga to that list in years to come, she’s certainly coming to my attention recently.
So, yes, there might not be a small number of stars who will ensure I see your film, but if you’re only looking for the white men who get me to the movies you’re actually looking at less than 1/4 of the people who are likely to get me to see your film. If you only look at the men, you’re looking at under half of them.
Despite Vin Diesel and Michelle Rodriguez both appearing on my list, I still haven’t watched any of The Fast and The Furious movies and probably won’t. It really isn’t a guarantee of me going to see your film. Story and things like that really matter too.
My taste, in movies and stars, is obviously personal and idiosyncratic. The money men are interested in the big picture - how much of a film’s taking is due to the stars rather than the plot, the special effects and so on? The Bankabilty Index attempts to determine this, but does so really badly - for example franchise movies aren’t counted so Jennifer Lawrence doesn’t show on their base list despite being (by a long way) apparently the highest grossing star at worldwide and (US) domestic box office. However, if you poke the numbers in their highest grossing star list, she is #1, but her movies apparently took no money internationally - so I didn’t see the last 2 Hunger Games, X-Men: Days of Future Past and X-Men: Apocalypse which are all in the list of films that count for her earnings. In addition, this list is based on scoring the movies on box office ranking too, Tom Hanks actually starred in more movies (39 to 15), in movies that took more money (~$9bn to ~$5b), but in movies that, on average did less well at the box office, so he comes in at #20 on the list, way below Chris Pratt who was only in 9 movies that grossed less than $1bn between them, but who had a lot of highly placed hits in those 9 (including Jurassic World and Guardians of the Galaxy) and so is rewarded for that. There may be good reasons for how the list is structured but see what I mean about assumptions biasing your results?
Until the money-men become money-people, men and women, and a mix of openly gay and straight, people of colour as well as white, just how well will Hollywood do with representing the world in which we live? I’m not denying it’s got better. Part of me feels under Trump and Pence it might push Hollywood to move faster, in reaction to their bigotry.
In the meantime, the movie industry overall is democratising. Hollywood is not the only fruit, so to speak. Tangerine, which I must admit I still have to watch, is somewhere between an Indy and a Hollywood movie but is a high quality movie. Its subject matter is trans prostitutes, so not really Hollywood material, but it is perhaps unique for being shot entirely on iPhones and yet still getting cinematic release. The quality is high enough the camera shouldn’t be regarded as a gimmick, just a tool like any other camera. I recently watched Almost Adults, which I will review properly soon, which has a storyline that Hollywood might touch but the script writers run a Youtube channel and funded it through a Kickstarter campaign. The stars were not paid Hollywood kind of money, but are both successful enough they’re full-time actors. The film is available to buy through various streaming outlets and, whether or not you like the story, in terms of the production it wouldn’t look out of place as a Hollywood movie. Just because of the money required for the big blockbusters and their special effects it might take longer, but if Hollywood doesn’t change it might really have something to scream about.
The music industry has already done this, as streaming music has replaced vinyl and the CD for most consumers, and the traditional scout, agent and producer is becoming less and less important in the music that reaches our ears, as the artist can literally record in their garage, or their basement, and distribute for themselves. The same is kind of true for the publishing industry - there is heated debate about whether you’re better off self-publishing or working with a publisher, and many of those tied in to the publisher side of the debate admit if they were starting now they’d look seriously at self-publishing instead.
More and more films about subjects Hollywood is bad at handling seem to be appearing by non-traditional routes and it won’t be long before that really bites into mainstream “Hollywood” too. Big “indy” festivals like Sundance already attract A-list stars away for ‘good’ projects that don’t pay so well. Kevin Linklater is an auteur on the fringes of Hollywood perhaps but Boyhood broke the rules, was a damn fine movie, and attracted maybe not an A-list star but still an Oscar winner and a string of familiar faces to it. How long, I wonder, before a Patricia Arquette or Ethan Hawke star in a Kickstarter funded movie that appeals because it’s just a really good project and the walls of Hollywood really do tumble down?
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