I don't normally read io9 (mostly a time constraint), but a friend linked me to a piece where the title tells it: Why We Can’t Have Great Movies. Two words: risk aversion.
... there's a kind of downward spiral where the more movies flop, the more risk-averse the studios become, and the more they make movies that are probably going to flop.
It's nothing we haven't seen elsewhere. For a long time there was essentially no fantasy publishing industry, but then a number of people (the fossil record seems to hint Lester Del Rey was among them) found you could rip off Tolkien left-right-and-center and make dumptrucks of money. Clifford Simak, Peter S. Beagle, Mervyn Peake and the like were traded up for Robert Jordan and Terry Brooks. Things are only slightly less dismal right now — there are talented folks like Bacigalupi and John Scalzi in SF — but for the most part it's about what sold last quarter, and it will likely only get worse as profit margins shrink, bookstores close and everything goes digital.
It's hard not to run a business and end up settling for what's dependably mediocre. A big part of why mediocrity is so consistently bankable is because the demographics of entertainment seem to be changing drastically. Not long ago I read Tough without a Gun, a new (and very good) biography of Humphrey Bogart, whom better folks than I have called the last Actor with a cap A to cross the screen. (Full disclosure: I have owned Casablanca in just about every home video format produced.) Towards the end, the author ran down a list of the highest-grossing movies as of the last year or so, and noted how the vast majority of them — as opposed to, say, thirty or forty years ago — are tilted now towards inoffensively pleasing an adolescent audience.
Adults, by and large, do not seem to be going to to the movies — or if they do, they rent them and stay at home, instead of sharing a theater where the person behind them is kicking the seat and they have last showing's popcorn sticking to the bottom of their shoe. They don't read much, either. Those that do read tend to read a lot, but they still don't compensate for the rest of the missing readers. What they are doing is watching TV, from the look of it, which would explain why we're getting Mad Men and The Wire on the little box while the movies are spiraling down into sequels and remakes and derivatives of all stripes.
It's a shame. The movies are not inferior to long-form TV. They are suited to telling a different kind of story, but I would not trade the thousand-whatever pages of The Count of Monte Cristo for the barely two hundred of Mrs. Dalloway. They share my shelf because they satisfy different needs, and the movies need to learn how to take the kinds of risks that can pay off. Small budgets and big visions are not mutually exclusive: District 9 comes to mind. (As does Skyline, although the fact that movie made a cement mixer full of dough depresses me enormously.)
The article also raised another point which I struggled with:
With visual effects getting ever more expensive, you have to spend a lot of money to make a huge, visually stunning epic — as opposed to a smaller risk, which is a movie with just a few big greenscreen sequences or a few big action set pieces.
Wait. If the basic technology for creating visual effects (and moviemaking generally) is getting cheaper and more ubiquitous, why are such movies getting more expensive? I suspect it's not the effects that are expensive per se, it's the human talent required to create those effects, to make them not look like a Silicon Graphics workstation got sick to its stomach and threw up all over the studio floor. It doesn't take a lot of effort to put a guy in front of a chromakey screen and drop in a background, but to make it not look like that is an order of magnitude harder.
Another problem: the baseline for what's acceptable in FX has gone so far up, you have to always do better than what came out last year. Nobody wants to see matte lines or models on a stick anymore — or at the very least, nobody who wants to be taken seriously by the average moviegoer who doesn't care about how low-budget FX have their own charm. To them, such things just looks cheap and stupid.
The other week, trailers went up for Steve McQueen's (no, not that one) new movie Shame. It is the first theatrically-released NC-17 film I've heard about in ages. Adult's cinema, in the non-derogatory sense of the term "adult". A dying breed, if not already dead.