Big budget films rely on visuals

Vince Gilligan, the creator of Breaking Bad, came to visit USC on Tuesday for the “Writing Presents…” series. Amid amusing anecdotes about actor Aaron Paul (who plays Jesse Pinkman on the show) and pink teddy bears (it’s a long story), he made a point to discuss the change in the movie industry. Gilligan argued what many in the business have started to echo — that television, in some ways, has gotten close to the old studio system of the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood. That system, in a very simplified form, consisted of vertical integration (allowing studios to control many aspects of distribution) and securing creative talent under long-term contracts. This system guaranteed the distribution and screening of several movies a year, with writers churning scripts out constantly.

Gilligan pointed out that some of these traits have been adopted, and taken advantage of, by television. A certain television channel’s ability to screen everything it makes gives it the sort of control over distribution that the studios used to enjoy. A long-running television show can take advantage of a room of writers churning out material.

The film studios have long since abandoned that studio system, in no small part because of a 1948 Supreme Court ruling that outlawed block booking. (Booking is a business model where studios would force theaters to buy and agree to screen movies in bulk, in advance.) That was the primary tool the studios used to control distribution and assure themselves large profits. Studios that were no longer able to rely on the distribution of a certain number of films per year had to gradually turn their focus toward fewer big-earning blockbusters, or as Gilligan put it, “tent-pole pictures,” rather than several smaller-earning films. For example, 20th Century Fox and Universal put out an average of more than 33 movies a year in the ’40s and ’50s. That average is now 18 in the last 10 years. In essence, studios go for money-earning quality over quantity.

For television, though, the old system works. The ability to stick with a show through TV’s form of vertical integration has allowed the greatness of Breaking Bad to flourish over time, as well as the initially struggling Game of Thrones to gain traction. For film, where it is no longer viable, this necessity to make as much as possible from individual films, accelerated by an audience that’s now distracted by several other forms of media, has amplified many of the ails of the blockbuster.

Because of this need to appeal to a wider audience, major blockbusters have increasingly had to appeal to the lowest common denominator. Simply put, this meant making the plots simpler in favor of more excitement through action or effects.

Naturally, this effect has drawbacks. It’ll be very difficult to see an action-packed yet intelligently-crafted summer film like one of the old Hitchcock classics again. A movie such as North by Northwest is an absolute barn-burner when it comes to action and twists, starring a megastar in Cary Grant, but at the same time it has an art to it that today’s blockbusters lack. Studios can’t risk releasing films like that, with so much financially at stake on each one — which would at least partially explain the increase of visually arresting films that lack a strong plot.

How many times have you heard complaints about beautiful movies with a bad story? For example, “Pacific Rim looks awesome, but the story was kind of stupid.” Sure, Pacific Rim was lacking in plot.It’s not a very difficult observation to make. In fact, I would argue that director Guillermo del Toro barely cared about the plot based on its comically rushed, densely packed introduction sequence. He practically brushes over 12 years worth of world-changing events in a few minutes, because for what he wanted to do with the movie, those events really weren’t important. The story wasn’t important. It was a canvas for del Toro, a fantastic director, to show us giant robots and giant aliens fighting each other in glorious 3-D. Sure, the plot consisted of a series of events to fill in the spaces between the battles. Sure, the characters were all about as flat as the ticket stub used to get in to see them. The images on that screen, however, had quintessential Hollywood magic, supercharged for the modern age.

Television, with all its character development and all its human drama, would never be able to show us something as visually striking as what is being shown on the silver screen. With immense budgets now funneled into special effects and production to compensate for the added risk each movie entails, film now has more capability than ever to bring fantastic things to life. It’s a trade-off. The same realities that drove the studios to constrain themselves and simplify their stories are also driving them to bring amazing worlds to life. What has more broad appeal than stunning images? In the hands of amazing directors like del Toro, we can see just how visually pleasing those images can be, while simultaneously satisfying the studios’ thirst for profit. Art and talent are not squeezed out of the best blockbusters, they are simply rechanneled.


Daniel Grzywacz is a senior majoring in neuroscience. His column,“The Reel Deal” runs Fridays.

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