Deadline has a nice piece in the "what the hell happened to the movies?" category, with the telling headline "Brands, Budgets, & Bankability Still Don’t Explain Why Studios Are In Crisis." One issue that comes more to mind when I read this piece: the closed-ended, suicidal production schedules of most Hollywood films.
Most people don't know this, but a big Hollywood movie has a release date the minute it's considered a go picture. It's pre-booked into theaters from that moment, and is only moved around if absolutely needed (and even the only by a few weeks, tops). This is a reflection of two things: the amount of control the theater chains have as one of the mouths of the distribution pipeline, and how locked-in the whole process is from front to back. It's the ideal process for a business whose entire monetization model is the minimization of risk.
Before blockbusters were Hollywood's SOP, their procedure for releasing a movie went something like this. Get the picture made, then look at it from a few different angles and figure out who it's for. Craft the ad campaign. Start it off on a few theaters here and there. Widen the release over time. Cultivate an audience for it. A good movie could play for months, even years, in theaters under such a plan. Many did.
After the Seventies (and Star Wars, hint hint), the plan shifted over time towards a production style that was pre-marketed, pre-packaged, pre-sold and pre-deployed before a single frame of film was shot. The end result was a gradual downward slide into mediocrity — flat stories, rushed production schedules, and the growing appeal of "safe" properties (read: remakes, sequels) that could be pre-sold to theaters and other venues for tons of money as a hedge against its actual performance. The studios have been backing furiously away from anything that seems remotely risky (read: interesting), and instead choosing to throw bigger and bigger sums at what amount to the same films repeated endlessly.
It's the rushed schedule issue that I find bothers me more and more, because it means a movie — especially one that relies on effects or other elaborate postproduction — runs that much more of a risk of being shoehorned through the production schedule without having the time to do anything right. I mentioned effects, but let's face it, everything else suffers when you have no time. Nobody bothers to come up with a story that resonates or makes sense; nobody takes the time to figure out who the movie really is for (well, a lot of the work in that regard is saved for you when you just make like everyone else and assume the audience is 18-35 and likes to watch things blow up); and the end result is a movie that leaves you with the nagging feeling you've seen this all before. Guess what: you have.
I don't think there's any safe way to back out of this without a complete disruption of the whole pipeline. The piece mentions VOD as being one such disruption, as a way to get modestly-budgeted films in front of attentive audiences without going broke in the process. But the theater chains are unhappy about losing that much more business to technology, and have rattled their sabers quite loudly over this.
I imagine some of this is exacerbated by the business of spinning off the production costs of a film into its own separate "corporation", which is why the copyright line for most films these days reads © POTZREBIE-VEEBLEFETZER FILMS LLC. That's a company whose entire portfolio consists of that one film. This construction is for the sake of allowing the production costs of a movie to be declared as a loss that may conveniently never be recouped by the parent company, and written down endlessly. (The profits, if any, are paid back to the parent company in the form of "fees".)
Maybe we've reached a point where the costs of moviemaking are simply so burdensome there's no other way to get anything done, but perhaps that in itself should be hint enough that we need to find a more sustainable way of going about this business? I don't plan on watching Pirates of the Caribbean for the rest of my days.