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His new book is “The Big Picture: The Fight for the Future of Movies.”
On this episode of Recode Media with Peter Kafka, Wall Street Journal reporter Ben Fritz talks about his new book, “The Big Picture: The Fight for the Future of Movies.” Fritz says the economics of the movie business have been completely transformed by the rise of online streaming services and by brands like Marvel, which have supplanted name-brand stars and directors as the most reliable indicator of a film’s success.
You can read some highlights from the interview here or listen to Recode Media on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.
Below, you’ll also find a lightly edited transcript of the full episode.
Peter Kafka: This is Recode Media with Peter Kafka. That is me. I’m Peter Kafka. I’m here at Vox Media headquarters in New York City. I’m talking to Ben Fritz from The Wall Street Journal, who’s written a new book called “The Big Picture: The Fight for the Future of Movies.” Hey, Ben.
Ben Fritz: Hey, Peter.
That’s called an introduction. Before we go further, I want to ask you to recommend this podcast to a friend, to the internet. I’ve been sending out emails recommending Ben’s book. I sent out a Twitter DM yesterday recommending Ben’s book. Someone wrote back and said, “I’m in line at Barnes & Noble to see Ben speak.”
So that is how one does sort of hand-to-hand promotion. I’m asking you guys to do that so you can listen to this podcast for free. Okay. Golda, is that an adequate promotion? We’re gonna make Golder a character on this show.
And now, Ben, welcome.
Thank you, Peter.
I wanted to work with you for years.
That’s right. You’ve spoken about it for a long time.
You’ve rejected my entreaties, so this will count. You’ve written this awesome book. It’s about the movie business.
If you listen to this podcast, so you’re a nerd who likes media, and the business of media, and how technology’s changing that, this is for you.
It’s a great book. I finished the whole thing. Last chapter on the subway here. Give me the thesis of the book.
Thesis of the book is that we’ve entered a new era of the movie business, which I call the franchise era of filmmaking. The movie business, correctly understood now, I think, is driven primarily by brands, by branded franchises — you know, your Marvel, your Fast and Furious, your Transformers, your Star Wars — and the age of movie stars, or the age of original films, the age of a diverse slates by studios is over, and those movies, they’re still created on the fringes of the business.
If you are someone who wonders why every movie is a superhero movie, or a Transformers movie, if you like that, if you complain about that, this is the book that explains that. And this isn’t a nuance that you quite clearly … I hadn’t really processed all the way through. The idea that movie studios spending a lot of time and attention on big blockbusters is not a new idea, and what is happened over the last 10 or 15 years is instead of saying, “We’re making a Bruce Willis movie or a Tom Cruise movie,” is that, “We’re making a movie that’s about Star Wars or Transformers,” or some brand that you presumably already know.
Right, yeah. Certainly there have been big-budget summer movies since “Jaws,” right, but now it’s not about the movie stars. The star vehicle is over, the Will Smith vehicle, the Bruce Willis vehicle is definitely over, and it’s these brands that are managed just as much as Procter & Gamble manages their brands. That’s what the most successful movie studios do, and the brands are really what’s relevant to consumers globally.
You buy an Apple product because you’re loyal to Apple. You go see a Marvel movie because you’re loyal to Marvel. And this has transformed the economics of the business for sure.
And you explain this in depth, sort of the why — let’s see if I got my reading comprehension correct — but it seems like you’re calling out three specific things that sort of pushed the business this way. One is the internet, and specifically Netflix and the fact that they’re sort of bringing so much content to you at home. Two is the death of DVDs, which cut out a really profitable part of the business and allowed them to make money from less successful movies. And the third is sort of the rise of China. Am I getting that correct?
You comprehended that very well. I would say that the …
I read the book.
Yeah, look at you. Not everybody who’s interviewed me has actually read the book thoroughly, I don’t think. Yes, and I would say the rise of Netflix, I would very … related to that, fold into it, is the golden age of TV, which includes Netflix and Amazon, of course, and also cable networks.
If I’m watching “Breaking Bad” commercial-free for 45 hours at home, it’s gotta be something pretty fantastic to get me into the theater.
Yeah, right. Has to be an amazing theatrical experience. Not to mention that “Breaking Bad,” essentially, is one big 45-hour story, right?
I mean, it’s essentially a really long movie. I think that’s a way to understand it.
Right, and that’s sort of a cliché now, right, that these … that “Game of Thrones” and “Breaking Bad” are a very long movie, but it’s true.
It is true.
And even the stuff that’s mediocre, right, is good enough to keep me engaged. So what is gonna get me to the theater? And specifically what is gonna get someone who’s spent money on a movie out to the theater?
Right, sure, right. You mean most TVs, obviously, you have a subscription to it, so the marginal cost of watching that next Netflix or HBO show is zero, and the marginal cost of going to see a movie is substantial, especially if you have kids and need babysitters and everything, so you’ve got so many good options for zero dollars.
They’re gonna get you out of the house, it better be one of two things: Either something so spectacular you would be inferior to watch it in your living room, or that rare thing that happens once in a while still, which is like a cultural moment that you want to be part of and everybody’s talking about “Get Out.” You can’t miss “Get Out.”
Right. I wanna talk more about the industry in general and the book — or what we can learn from the book — but I do wanna highlight something that surprised me when I started reading it, because the title doesn’t say so and there’s nothing in the copy that indicates this, but at least half the book is about the story of Sony Pictures, specifically. You have great access and great detail, and that’s because you’re using … Well, you tell me. You fill in the blank.
Because of the hack of Sony Pictures now a little over three years ago, yes.
So basically that provided you with enormous source material?
Right. You’re correct. We didn’t advertise it heavily because I didn’t want people to see this as a hack book or a Sony book.
Hack book or “This is the story of what happened three years ago at Sony.”
Yes, exactly right. That wouldn’t be so compelling. This is about …
But it is super compelling, because it’s the kind of reporting you wouldn’t normally be able to do. You have all this insight into what Michael Lynton’s thinking, what Amy Pascal is thinking, because they’ve written it in their own words in a way that you can’t really normally get ever.
True, well, this is …
Contemporaneous notes filed by the people in charge of the theater.
Yes, that was absolutely … that was my in to the book. That’s where I started. This hack happened. Is there a book in the hack? That’s really where I started three years ago. First, it was like maybe this is like “too big to fail.” You’re inside the drama and you see what happens, but there were two problems with that. One is the problems in a movie studio and an executive getting fired is not exactly akin to the American economy almost collapsing, and it was so over-covered at the time. There wasn’t a lot left to say about what was happening there.
But I did … the more I dug into it, the more I thought, “Hey, this stuff they are talking about are all these issues that I think about and everybody I know who goes to the movies thinks about.” The people in Hollywood are actually having the same kind of debates. Why can’t we make original movies for adults anymore? Why’s that so hard? How we gonna handle this franchise age? What are we gonna do that will appeal to people in China? How are we gonna compete with Marvel and Star Wars? That’s what the people at Sony were debating, and I realized this is a great …
And you write a book like this, it can’t just be me pontificating, or it could, but I don’t think that’s such a good book, but you want to have characters. You want to have an arc. You wanna see people grappling with problems, and the Sony executives whose emails were released, I think combined with the documents that get you into the economics of their business and combined with some additional reporting that I did provides a narrative and characters that drive all these big issues we’re talking about.
Because if you remember the Sony hack — and it’s hard to remember now because we’re post WikiLeaks, and then everything has been hacked. There was a couple months of enormous coverage of what was in the documents, and lots of embarrassing personal stuff about Amy Pascal’s shopping habits and racial slurs. She came off much worse, I think, just sort of her job and the nature of how she communicated via email.
And everyone sort of harvested the emails for salacious stuff. I pulled out something that David Goldberg had written to Michael Lynton about how to fix the music business, but you went and said, “Oh, there’s a story of a business here.” And the reason why it’s interesting for you and for readers is Sony is a studio that had been doing well and could not keep up with the move into blockbusters — which is a little hard to reconcile, because if you think a little bit about this, these are the people who had “Spider-Man,” which is one of the most successful blockbuster franchises.
Yeah, of the early 2000s.
How come they weren’t able to go, “Well, ‘Spider-Man’s’ working. Let’s do more of this.”
Sure. “Spider-Man” was sort of in an age when you have these diverse movie slates and you have a couple of tent poles. “Spider-Man” was a tent pole, combined with all your Adam Sandler comedies and your star vehicles with Will Smith and your original dramas and all those sorts of things. So, Sony did succeed with “Spider-Man,” but what they weren’t able to do was sort of turn that into a brand, turn into a cinematic universe.
The thing about “Spider-Man” was it was really … for them, in their mind, the way Sony used to do things, it was attached to the talent. It was attached to Tobey Maguire, the star, and Sam Raimi, the director, and as they got more and more powerful and demanded more and more money, the profits from those movies went down and it creatively got worse. If you recall “Spider-Man 3” when he turns into an emo Peter Parker …
Is it the one where he’s dancing?
And he dances in the streets.
Right. It was pretty terrible, and even though it grossed more than the prior two, the “Spider-Man” films, the profits were way down because they were giving all the money to the talent.
But there’s multiple “Spider-Man” reboots.
Then they rebooted it.
Andrew Garfield was the “Spider-Man.”
Yeah, they rebooted it with Andrew Garfield, and it was not so successful anymore. They just didn’t do it well, and that was the only successful franchise that they had. They weren’t able to transition, and by the time the reboot came out, this was when Marvel Studios with “Avengers” and “Captain America” and “Iron Man” and so on was on the scene had created a new, more appealing to global moviegoers style of superhero film, and Sony was really behind the curve.
The bigger issue you’re pointing to that I should mention is it just happened to be Sony that got hacked, but if I was gonna pick a studio that would be a great character, so to speak, for this transition from the star-driven diverse-slate era of filmmaking to the franchise era of filmmaking, Sony would probably be the best one, because they were so successful in the 2000s, and they’ve had such a hard time in the 2010s. They haven’t been able to make this transition.
And it wasn’t that Amy … Am I pronouncing her name correctly? Is it Pascal?
Pascal was above making movies that lots of people wanted to go see, right? She made plenty of Adam Sandler movies. He had basically his own corner of the lot.
Lots of dumb Will Ferrell movies. Nothing wrong with that. But her heart wasn’t in it, right? Those were the things that bought houses. And then what she really liked was making these sort of mid-tier sort of movies with Tom Hanks.
Yes, she likes making …
“Captain Phillips,” “The Social Network.” These are the kind of movies that really drove her and excited her, and she’d work with filmmakers like James L. Brooks — even though they cost her a lot of money — because she believed in them and they had made her money in the past. She loved her talent. She got into the movie business not because she wanted to run a studio. She got into it because she loved making movies. She is now a producer again, and she was a producer to start with, and that’s really where her heart is.
She made “The Post.”
Yes, she was Oscar nominated for “The Post” this year.
That is a classic Amy Pascal-type movie, right.
Stars, prestige, real story you should care about.
Yep, absolutely. It’s an old-fashioned, down-the-middle, quote-unquote prestige movie.
Did that movie make money?
It made a little bit of money. Yeah. I mean, it made a little bit of money, which is totally fine. It used to be you had 10 of those and they all make a little money, combine them together, and you have one or two “Spider-Mans” and you have a great year. But now, it’s rare that those movies make any movie, and the little bits of money that some of them do is erased by the ones that flop and then make nothing on DVD, which is why the only way to make real profits in the movie business these days is to have your “Jumanjis” and your “Fast and Furious.”
Well, there’s a couple versions. I wanna talk about that, but quickly, we make money because people advertise with us. So please, don’t forward past this ad. You should listen to it. This advertiser is awesome, because they support Recode Media. Listen up.
We’re back here with Ben Fritz, who wrote “The Big Picture,” which you should go buy. What’s the best way for someone to buy your book? Do you care if they buy hardcover, or paperback, or e-copy?
There’s no paperback yet, but I don’t care …
Don’t buy the paperback.
Don’t buy the paperback. You’re gonna have a hard time. But I don’t care if you buy an e-book or a hardcover. Whatever you like. If you wanna support your local bookstore, that’s awesome. I highly recommend doing that.
What boosts your …
Of course there’s Amazon rankings, and if you buy it on Amazon you boost my ranking, which gets more people to pay attention to it, so that’s great, too.
Go buy it on Amazon, who also makes movies. We can talk about that in a minute.
Yes, they do.
The counterpoint to Sony is Disney.
Which owns Marvel, Lucasfilm, Pixar. Dominates moviemaking, right, or dominates this era of moviemaking, dominates the blockbuster franchise version of it. I talk about this all the time. Those three studios that Disney bought, bought collectively for about $ 15 billion dollars. Sort of the best M&A in modern media. Is their success today solely because they had the foresight to buy those three properties? Anyone who bought those three properties would be doing as well as they are?
No, it’s not entirely that. I mean, that’s a big chunk of it. Their success is also, frankly, their willingness to abandon every other kind of movie. Bob Iger sold Miramax. He shut down Touchstone, which means he stopped making indie movies. He stopped making R-rated movies. He stopped making romantic comedies, stopped making original dramas for adults.
Bob Iger didn’t come from the film business. He came from TV, and he was willing to look at it with sort of this, frankly, kind of cold financial approach, and say the branded movies make more money. He said to me, it’s a quote in the book, he said, he loves movies. At the time, “Spotlight,” when I interviewed him, had won best picture. He said, “I love ‘Spotlight.’ I love movies like that, but movies like that are a terrible business. Even in success, the profit margin is pretty thin.”
“Terrible, terrible business,” I think is the quote, right?
“Terrible, terrible business,” yes, and the profit margin’s thin. The profit margin for the branded movies is better, so he bought them. Very smart. And the other smart thing he did is he largely has left them alone. They have their own creative culture, and the creative culture of Marvel is quite different than the creative culture of Pixar, for example, and the people who work there are all passionate about what they do. The Marvel executives are Marvel geeks. The Pixar people are animation geeks.
There used to be this idea — and I think Amy Pascal at Sony would exemplify it — where well, no, the studio head of production, he or she ultimately gets involved and decides what’s best. The comic book people shouldn’t make comic book movies because they’re too geeky and they’re not gonna know what the broad audience wants. So you’d have the superhero movies that were not made …
You’d bring in adults to say, “We’re gonna translate this nerdy thing into something that has broader reach.”
Yes, exactly, and it turns out that the opposite has succeeded. Marvel’s run by Marvel geeks, and Bob Iger and Disney have let them do it, and they’ve been massively successful by leaning into everything that worked about the comics.
If you care at all about this stuff, by the way, your story of Marvel and how that brand was built, and then nearly sold, and how Sony could’ve bought the entire thing for what? 25 million?
Sony had the opportunity to buy the movie rights to virtually every Marvel character for $ 25 million, and the response …
Said, “No, that’s too much.”
The response of the executives was, “Who’s ever gonna be interested in seeing a movie about Iron Man or Captain America or Black Panther? Nobody cares about them.” All they cared about was “Spider-Man.”
So they just bought “Spider-Man” for a few million dollars, for what would’ve essentially been the cost of like half an Adam Sandler movie. They passed on the rest of Marvel. It’s an amazing story. Go read it for that alone, but read the whole book.
Again, back to what you were talking about at Disney, it’s not just that he bought those franchises. Then he said, “We’re gonna get out of the other businesses, because the risk involved in making a movie that might be very, very commercial but doesn’t have a brand attached to it, it’s too high. Also, that the mid-tier movie, much less, the upside there is too limited, and we can still lose a ton of money.”
Because by the way, you can make a failed blockbuster movie, right.
Attaching Marvel or Lucasfilm … Actually all of those are always successful. But you could make a very commercial movie attached to a brand and it still won’t work.
What I’ve been thinking a lot about is why studios aren’t spending money on the very low-budget movies. I just talked to Jason Blum last week at South By Southwest. Seems like — and I talked back and forth with him about this — his formula where you cap your downside, he says he can’t lose money essentially by spending up to $ 5 million on a movie, and then theoretically, could have really, really big pay days when you get a “Get Out” or a … What else did he do this year? “Split.”
“The Purge,” “Split.”
Really big. I can imagine why Disney would say, “Our model works because we only want giant home runs.” But why aren’t more studios … why aren’t more people trying to do the Jason Blum method where you say, “We’re gonna cap this. By the way, we’re not trying to make art films. We wanna make commercial films.” Why aren’t more people trying to do that sort of low, low budget, minimized-risk model of moviemaking?
I think it’s a good question why your Paramounts and your Sonys have not been doing that as successful as Universal has with Jason Blum, and all I can say is I know in some cases they’ve tried to do it, and they’ve done it poorly, and they haven’t managed to get any successful films out of it. Paramount actually had a division — I’m forgetting what it’s called — but who’s devoted entirely to trying to do super-low-budget films, and trying to do just that, and basically none of the movies that came out of that made it to theaters. They were all … they went straight to VOD. They just weren’t very successful at it. Jason and the people he works with have managed to have a few major hits coming out of that formula.
I think that falls in the category of one of those things that seems easy to say but is hard to do. Just like make a superhero cinematic universe. Easy to say, but look at the results Warner Bros. had with DC, and you know it’s easier said than done.
Following the easier said than done, you spent some time in the book talking about Netflix is moving to movies, Amazon’s moving to movies. These are guys with essentially unlimited resources.
Right, billions of dollars for content. Basically, they have not had real success in movies. Netflix will tell you that “Bright” was successful.
Who knows, but it doesn’t seem likely.
First of all, it’s a terrible movie.
And second I think Netflix can shove something in your face and say that you’ve watched it, but that’s not successful.
That’s not success. Absolutely.
Whenever I ask someone why hasn’t Amazon and Netflix been successful at movies yet, the standard answer’s sort of a shrug and, “Hey, movies are hard, and they just haven’t had enough at bats.” Do you think that’s the case?
Well, I would dispute your thesis a bit. I would say Amazon has had some success in the field they’re playing in, which is the indie movie. Two of the most successful indies — and I know it’s weird to say indie and Amazon — but two of the most successful lowest-budget prestige movies of the past couple years have been “Manchester by the Sea” and “The Big Sick,” which were released by Amazon in theaters first before they went on to Prime.
Right. Now those are movies someone else made, they bought, and we’ll call it as is …
They bought and released those movies. Yes.
Then Netflix, by the way, has done some of that. That’s the same thing, right. Not in movies.
Yes. Well, they actually bought “Mudbound” at Sundance, nominated for Oscars. I mean, people liked it. Who the heck knows how many people watched it.
They’ve at least had critical success and success by indie-movie standards in theaters.
Yes, and that’s significant. Indie movies, large studios, have significantly but not completely abandoned that field, and Amazon and Netflix, especially Amazon, are just completely taking it over, because they don’t care about making profits on individual films the way the studios have to. They’ve taken over that, and the question now I think you’re pointing to is, as they start getting into bigger-budget films, mid-budget films, $ 50, $ 100 million, star vehicles, Will Smith vehicles, can they succeed?
The one thing they can’t do, so far — one of the few advantages the major studios have left — is Netflix and Amazon, when they’re streaming, don’t seem to figure out: How do you create an event? How do you make this a significant thing? When a movie comes out and you see it on billboards everywhere and it’s playing in the local multiplex near you, and people who are seeing it, we’re all seeing it together and we’re all seeing it at the same time. It’s not just on my queue and I’m gonna get to it. We’re all seeing “Black Panther” right now. That’s a major event. That’s something that Netflix has not figured out how to do, and that seems fine with TV shows, but with movies that’s a problem.
Do you think if Netflix made “Black Panther,” the exact same movie, and said, “We’re opening it Friday. By the way, if you wanna have a ‘Black Panther’ party, we’ll accommodate that. We’ll throw screenings in theaters.” Or however you wanna do it. Do you think that movie has the same degree of success culturally?
That’s been a debate I’ve been having with some people recently, because it’s a big question. My argument would be no. I don’t think it would have the same impact culturally, because I don’t think we’d all be seeing it around the same time. I think some of us would get to it when we get to it. I think the fact that it feels like it’s a big deal to go out of the house to go see it, that takes a real effort, so therefore that’s something that seems more meaningful to you. You’re seeing it in a group, and you see other people screaming, laughing, having a great time, and then the fact that we’ve all seen it within a span of just a few weeks, therefore we’re all talking about it, I think that absolutely is different.
I remember some of the most significant movies of my lifetime and being in the theater, or waiting on line to see “Jurassic Park,” let’s say, or something. Even the TV shows I loved, like “The Simpsons” or “Freaks and Geeks,” I don’t remember where I was sitting. I don’t remember the moment I saw that episode.
I think the counterpoint is “Game of Thrones,” right, where lots of people are watching it at 9:00 on Sunday, but then there’s a ton of viewing that happens within the next couple days, right, so everyone who’s interested in “Game of Thrones” is watching it within the week.
Right, but a TV show can build to that, for sure. A TV show that becomes successful, right, but a movie is a one-time thing, so you can’t sort of build up. After a season or two, “Game of Thrones” becomes this big thing. We all talk about it every Monday after seeing it the prior night. Perhaps, if Netflix was making every Marvel movie, by the time they got … they had made a bunch of them, become more and more significant, but for a one-off movie, you just can’t create that overnight online.
So you’re reporting the book for a couple years. You finished reporting when last year?
I finished all the research in like late 2016, and then I started my writing.
So this is the problem with anyone who writes a book, right, but I think particularly someone who’s doing what you’re doing. You’re writing about something that’s in flux, which is that there’s a bunch of stuff that’s happened in the movie business.
Wait. Has anything interesting happened in Hollywood in the past six months?
That is not in your … ’cause I’ve got an advance copy here that I got from you months ago, and I thought, well, maybe there was pressure. You would’ve felt pressure to slap something in about Disney-Fox.
I mean, there was no way to do it.
It’s not in there.
It’s not in there. Not in the final version. There’s no way to do it. I mean, the last change I made to the book was November or December, I had had something in there saying the business-friendly Trump administration is likely to approve the AT&T-Time Warner deal.
Yes, I saw that.
Did you see that?
That is slightly changed in the final version.
That has changed.
That’s the last change I made. But Disney-Fox I don’t have in there. It happened too late. But I would like to believe that if you’ve read the book, that deal is not surprising to you.
You lay out the case for why Disney would be rapacious … why Disney would want more, because they’re doing it really well. Beyond the fact that if this deal goes through that this gives Disney the “Fantastic Four” and “X-Men” franchises.
What other impact does it have on the movie business? It just sort of accelerates the trend we’re talking about?
Yeah, I mean, it’s two things. It takes us towards the streaming age. I think, obviously, the ultimate motivation now for everything Disney does now these days is to compete with Netflix. That’s where they’re heading, and they’re also gonna take control of Hulu, so they’ll have three streaming platforms.
Maybe? You think not?
There’s the thesis, right, that maybe this is a chip that they give to Comcast.
Yes, that is possible, depending on everything going on with Sky and everything, but certainly Disney wants to take over Hulu.
That is what they say publicly.
Okay. Fair enough, yes.
And may well believe.
I do believe that. And they’ll have their own Disney streaming service they’re launching, and they have ESPN, and they know they need to compete aggressively with Netflix and go directly to consumers. The Fox deal gives them Hulu, gives them more content. Disney has really shrunk the amount of content they create significantly, which has worked great for them in the movie theater model.
Online you need a little bit more. They’re not gonna produce the 700 pieces a year that Netflix is doing right now, but they need more. They wanna have more brands, because Disney’s all about brands, and after they get “Avatar” they get “X-Men.” They’re getting Fox Searchlight, which is ironic, because Bob Iger shut down Miramax, but I think that’s a business that pairs well with Hulu, should they hold on to it. Hulu’s sort of their adult streaming service, and Fox Searchlight makes movies for adults, but what you are gonna see, though, no matter what they keep from Fox, Fox is gonna be shrunk down, if not ultimately abandoned.
We’re moving to an age of fewer studios, which is what you see in any business when a business is kind of old and new competition comes at them aggressively, then the older businesses start consolidating. They have to do that. They need the resources to compete, and because there’s not as much money to be made in the old moviemaking model, so the old studios have to consolidate in order to challenge Netflix and Amazon, and soon Apple.
Up until the Disney-Fox deal, and you say this in your book, though the conventional wisdom is that the idea that you’re gonna see the movie in the theater, and you’re gonna have to wait many months to see it at home, that’s going away, because Netflix, because Amazon, because by the way, the studios wanna stop this. They wanna figure out some way that you can watch the movie relatively quickly at home. Shorten that window.
Now it seems like, because Disney’s buying Fox, Disney was the one studio that didn’t wanna do this, because they’ve got a model that works really well, that momentum has stopped. I asked Kevin Mayer about this onstage, and he says, “Yeah, this model works great for us. We’re gonna keep doing it.” So do you think we’re gonna go several more years where you’re gonna have to learn to wait many months to see “Black Panther”?
I do think that’s on hold. But the Disney-Fox deal takes two studios out of the equation who wanna do that, and I think Warner Bros. certainly feels like they can’t be in the lead on this, because they’re trying to get bought by AT&T, and something like this is disruptive or might help the government’s case against them, so I think the idea of movies coming to home sooner is on hold. Although, ultimately, it still seems inevitable that window is going to shrink.
What I do think could happen sooner that’s interesting is now that everybody’s pushing towards streaming, you’re gonna see as soon as a movie’s available to watch at home: Right now it’s on DVD and VOD for a few months before it goes to pay TV, HBO or Netflix. That’s gonna start to shrink. I think you’re gonna start to see the movies get on your streaming / pay TV platform, HBO, essentially a streaming platform now, Netflix or the new service Disney’s launching. I wouldn’t be surprised if a movie’s only available on DVD and VOD for a few weeks before it’s available to stream on your subscription service right away.
Because the idea that you’re gonna buy a physical or even digital copy of something, that era’s gone.
That era’s going away.
That era’s left in music, right. Everyone is now … understands that you consume something by paying a recurring subscription fee and streaming it whenever you want.
Right, sure. Absolutely right. That is what consumers like now. It’s what they’re used to, especially younger consumers, and then obviously Disney as they launch the streaming service, wants to make it really appealing. Well, one way to make it appealing is this is the way, maybe this is the only way you can watch a Disney movie at home. Or it’s a way you can watch it at home right away.
And if you’re a studio, that’s sad, because you’ve lost DVD sales and you’re losing with EST, right. That’s buying through iTunes, a digital download. You say, “Well, yes, but now you’re gonna get this monthly recurring fee.” Ten, 15 bucks, whatever your share of that is, and you’re gonna get that all year long, no matter what you give people. So you’re better off in the end.
You’ve acquired a consumer, right, as they say, and you’ve got that recurring revenue, and now you’re starting to get data on that consumer. You know who they are. You know what they like. It’s helpful for marketing. It’s helpful even thinking about what you should make next. That is clearly more valuable, is to own a consumer than to sell them a one-off piece of content.
Back to Amazon and Netflix, Amazon specifically. Again, terms of shift, right? Roy Price, who was running Amazon Studios is out, as of last fall.
And at the same time, Amazon said, “You know this whole thing where we’re doing ‘Transparent’ and we win awards? That’s great. We need giant blockbusters now, and that’s where we’re gonna spend our money.” As you point out in the book, Amazon had carved out its niche as “we’re the giant conglomerate that supports indie filmmakers.” Does that go away as well? They haven’t been explicit about that.
They haven’t been explicit about it in film. And so in TV, they’re making that switch fast. They wanna have their “Game of Thrones,” as they say.
All the quirky comedies, out the window.
Yep, those are gone. They’re not buying those anymore.
We want really big hits.
They spent something like more than $ 250 million just for the rights to do a “Lord of the Rings” show. By the way, a “Lord of the Rings” show for which they can’t use any of the characters who were in the films.
So, what’s it gonna be?
By the way, that’s gonna be a half billion, right, by the time they’re done actually making these films?
Yeah, by the time they’re making it and everything, absolutely. Yeah, massive investment. So in TV they’re making that switch.
In film, they haven’t yet, and they’re slowly starting to do some slightly bigger films. They’re partnering with studios. They’re partnering with Warner Bros. on … I’m forgetting the name, but on an adaptation of a book that might be a $ 40 or $ 50 million movie, so they’re starting to move in that direction, but they just signed the deal with Alexander Payne, who’s an indie filmmaker. That’s definitely the part of the film business that they have latched on to. It’s something that differentiates them and I think gets them more affluent consumers who will buy a lot of stuff on Amazon, which is of course their most important goal.
Bringing this back to Sony. You decide, “Hey, I’m gonna root through the Sony hack emails, as well.” Did you think, “I don’t know. I don’t know if I wanna make a book about using stolen emails.” Again, you talk about it in the introduction. This book is based on stolen emails. Did it take you a while to get comfortable with that idea?
I think, actually, it was more once I started doing it that I started to become uncomfortable. At first, I felt fine, and like other people, as soon as the hack happened I’d gone through to find some of the juiciest.
Did you google yourself?
Of course, I searched myself, and … Am I allowed to curse on this podcast?
So I found … I searched for Ben Fritz and I found this time I wrote an article about Amy Pascal that she really didn’t like, and another executive who works for Warner Bros. was like, “Don’t worry about him. Fuck Ben Fritz.”
That’s gotta be very exciting.
It was, yeah. The fact that studio executives are talking about how much they fucking hate me, that felt great.
But yeah, going into it, I felt like this is such great material. This is gonna be … I felt good about it. And when I sold the book proposal, and I started, okay, now I have to read every single one. Find what’s interesting and relevant. The way I did it I was like, “Okay. Right now I’m reading Amy Pascal’s emails. Then I’m gonna read Michael Lynton’s emails.” So there’d be a few months where I’m just living in her world and almost getting in her head, and that started to feel uncomfortable.
Did you tell them, “Hey, I’m reading every single email.”
Yeah, I told them as soon as the book proposal was out. Ironically, or let’s say poetic justice for me, the book proposal leaked before I sold it, so the Hollywood Reporter got their hands on it, so I called Amy and Michael and said, “You’re gonna read about this. I’m doing this. I’m gonna do it as respectfully as I can, but just want you to know.” So yeah, there were times I was …
At that point, everyone had rummaged through their underwear drawer, right?
So did they feel any differently about it coming out in book form as opposed to 40 different stories?
At the time, they seemed … they were not pleased, but they were like, “Well, we know you.” I told them I’m not writing anything about your underwear, your Amazon orders, about your kids. I’m not gonna write about any of that stuff. I promise you. They seemed sort of like … they were resigned to it, and they seemed okay with it.
I would say, as the process went on, they both and other people at Sony went back and forth, and they’re like, “I’m okay with this,” or, “Oh my god. This is a nightmare.” But I did my best to … I did it by fact-checking with them. I let them know everything that’s gonna be in the book, so at minimum they couldn’t accuse me of surprising them.
Have you heard from them since?
I have … Well, I guess what I can say is that I have presented everything to them to make sure they wouldn’t be surprised by what would be published, and any responses they may have given to me they asked, I think, they would not be for public consumption.
Again, it’s intimate, but it’s not leering, right?
Yes, Amy Pascal’s getting a mammogram and she’s jotting down emails, but you’re not making fun of the fact that she’s getting a mammogram. She’s trying to save a movie.
Right, right. I mean, you can’t … this is their personality, because they both bring their personalities to their jobs, and you can’t understand how they do their job without knowing that Michael is this very cool customer who comes from a background of great privilege, and was a bit disengaged, let’s say, from the movie business. It could’ve been any business for him. And Amy is really neurotic and really passionate about movies, and she’s up writing almost incomprehensible emails at 1:00 am that are 5,000 words to her subordinates all the time.
So you get to know them in that sense, but there’s nothing about their purely personal lives, their own personal business, especially nothing about their families. I will say while I was researching it, anytime I started reading an email and I was like, “This is clearly personal,” especially if it involved their family, I just stopped reading it and went on to the next one.
You write about the movie business. You’ve done it for a long time. You like movies, right?
Yes, I do.
Like a lot of people who cover this business.
After a deep dive of several years into this book, are you hopeful about movies, or are you resigned to the future of movies?
I am hopeful. I would say, after I was mostly done with the manuscript I felt a little depressed, and then when I sat back to write the conclusion, and I especially I thought more about the streaming platforms, I feel I’d say, maybe two-thirds better and one-third worse, and the two-thirds better is that what any fan of movies really should want is for great movies to be made, for great content to be made, and the digital companies are creating more great visual content than ever before, and some of it is pure movies, and then some of it is a limited series, and some of it is a TV season, but it’s only eight episodes, and you start to say, “What is the difference?”
If you’re watching it at home on your TV or your iPad, what’s the difference between a movie or a limited series or a short TV season? It all starts to blur. And a lot of TV shows now are from people who used to be quote-unquote filmmakers, and are ideas in the past they would’ve brought to a studio to make into a film.
So you’re gonna get amazing stuff delivered to you at home in different lengths, and you can decide if you wanna call it a movie or a TV show or webisode.
Seems like, though, the idea that you’re gonna go to the movie theater and see “The Social Network,” that’s gone and it’s not coming back. That if you’re gonna go to the movie theater, it’s generally gonna be to go see a Marvel movie or something like that, and that you’ll have some anomalies like the “Get Outs” of the world or, again, maybe Jason Blum will make other horror movies that you’ll go. There’ll be some weird anomalies.
Seems like the idea of going to a movie theater and seeing “Lady Bird” in a couple years will just be gone.
Yep, that’s disappearing, and that’s …
And how do you feel about that?
I have mixed feeling about that, right? On the one hand, if more “Lady Birds” are made, and no matter how they’re made, no matter where you watch it, that seems like a great thing. But what’s missing, what we were talking about earlier, this idea that we’re all seeing it together at the same time. It’s part of the cultural conversation. It’s an event that impacts our culture that is lessening and will go away, and that I think is a shame.
When we’re all just watching things on our digital queue and getting around to it when we get around to it, and you and I are not watching the same things at all, and if we are it’s certainly not at the same time, that lessens the ability, I think, of art to impact our culture, and that is something movies have done really successfully for the past century, and that is a bummer.
And if you’re Netflix or someone like that, you say, “You’re just complaining because you listen to radio plays, and things evolve, and things change, and by the way, we can’t tell you, but lots of people watched ‘Orange Is the New Black.’”
“And they were having a shared experience. We just weren’t talking about it that way.” You don’t buy it.
I don’t. I mean, I think it’s evident. I mean, it’s evident that it’s not impacting our culture in the same way. Netflix’s whole business model is we have something for everybody, not we all are watching the same thing at the same time. That’s definitely their model. I believe them that people are watching it, but I don’t believe that 99 percent of the content Netflix is producing is really impactful on our culture, and especially their movies. That is undeniable, and if they try to argue against that, I think it’d be laughable, but they have yet to produce a movie that has had any significant impact on American culture.
We got you all whipped up. That’s a good way to leave the interview.
And promote your book in your words. Go buy the …
Please go buy “The Big Picture …”
There you go.
“The Fight for the Future of Movies” by the really handsome author Ben Fritz, and if you’re someone who has wondered why are there so many superhero movies and sequels and remakes and spinoffs at the multiplex, why are there so few interesting original films for adults, this book explains why that happened, how we got here and what the future of movies may be as all the digital companies are moving in.
Sold. I would buy it. Except I’ve already read it. You guys will enjoy this if you’ve listened to this podcast. If you’ve gotten all the way through this podcast, you will love this book. Go buy the book. Thanks, Ben, for joining us.
Thank you so much, Peter.
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