Matt Damon has provided a “Hollywood 101” class on what ails the industry as he’s made the rounds over the last 2-3 weeks in support for his new movie “Stillwater.” Leave it to a Boston guy to articulate Hollywood’s dilemma authentically and succinctly. But before getting to Damon’s nuggets of wisdom, let me share my own (thanks NYNEX Yellow Pages for the classic “Vanity Cases” ads as a reminder/inspiration).
Last month, in “5 Reasons Going to the Movies is Facing an Irreversible Demise,” one of the reasons I cited was that the quality of streaming TV and movies are going in opposite directions (the former is getting better, albeit inconsistently, and the latter is is in a precipitous nosedive). This reason alone would be enough to sink moviegoing over time. On podcasts this summer I have lamented how, despite the reopening, there isn’t a single movie my wife and I have been motivated to see. That has caused us to improvise and reluctantly do other things with our bits of free time (yes, mostly stream).
But last weekend we did see a movie, “Stillwater;” the first time we had entered a theater since pre-Covid. We saw it in Pittsfield, MA at 8:45pm in one of those luxury theaters with the fold down and heated seats. We got there a little early, plunked ourselves into the middle and waited during the trailers and ads for the audience to fill in. But they never did. Not one other person attended. We sat in a theater all to ourselves and got a “private” screening of “Stillwater” for the princely sum of $10 per ticket.
Despite my enthusiasm for the movie, my consternation over Hollywood’s future only deepened. The obvious first reason is how the hell does a theater stay afloat giving private screenings on a Saturday night for a movie that should resonate well with the area’s thoughtful summer residents? Sure there was a pack of 15 year old boys at “Jungle Cruise” playing adjacent, but that’s not enough to cover all the theater’s bills, especially in the winter when the whole building needs to be heated.
Not helping "Stillwater" was that it ran for just about 10-15 minutes longer than it needed to without losing any of its impact. In my humble opinion that extra time is having the effect of turning most 50+ year olds’ (with a certain sensibility) fulsome reviews into “It was great, but...” word of mouth. That means a lot, at least to me. I almost ALWAYS act on trusted friends’ unbridled recommendations, I only SOMETIMES act on recommendations that come with asterisks. Only a portion of “Stillwater’s” likely audience will actually follow through and see the movie.
Nonetheless, "Stillwater" is a superb movie and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if it walks away with 8-10 Oscars, unquestionably one for Matt Damon as Best Actor, but also with several nominations for supporting actress, unless Hollywood has a big surprise still up its sleeve in Q4 ’21. For whatever “Stillwater’s” flaws (and there are a few others beyond its run time), it’s just really hard for me to see how Hollywood releases anything better this year, even if it is has received mixed reviews and Amanda Knox is perturbed. But I’ll fully admit I have a very soft spot for well-told stories about people whose genuine capabilities have been smothered by their inherited adverse circumstances. Their ability to surmount these limitations and discover their true selves, as Matt Damon’s Bill Baker does in “Stillwater,” always renews my faith in the human spirit. Yes, call me a sap if you want. But just please don’t call me a coastal elitist, which I’m emphatically not.
Second, how the hell does a studio make money on the “Stillwater” model? It reportedly cost $20 million just to make (not clear what the marketing budget was), but its gross is just about $10 million so far, according to Box Office Mojo though it is holding its own at #5. But pay-1/streaming upside may be limited (not only because box office was so-so) but because “Stillwater,” is produced by Focus Features, which is owned by Universal Pictures, which is in turn owned by Comcast. Last month Universal said it plans to release a slew of its ’22 movies on Peacock four months after theatrical debut before they go to Amazon.
It’s not clear if “Stillwater” will fall into that category. But at a minimum, “Stillwater” is going to be affected by the changing economics of the pay-1 window as media companies’ in-house streamers are prioritized for early release (Universal will test the market for “Pay 1A” with Amazon getting streaming rights after Peacock). It likely means “Stillwater’s” post-theatrical upside is pretty finite.
Now, finally back to Damon. In a long NY Times magazine article a couple of weeks ago, one excerpt was key:
Over the course of his career, Damon has seen the films like the ones that sustained him — that is, the $20-million-to-$70 million drama, what he calls his “bread and butter” — mostly disappear. “You need those roles to develop as an actor and build your career, and those are gone,” Damon said, nodding. “Courtroom dramas, all that stuff, they can’t get made.” Those sorts of movies have been replaced by more easily exportable, higher-budget but paradoxically lower-risk ones. “You’re looking for a home run that can play in all these different territories to all these different ages,” Damon said. “You want the most accessible thing you can make, in terms of language and culture. And what is that? A superhero movie.”
Meanwhile, in his interview with Sean Evans on First We Feast’s show “Hot Ones” (hat tip to my son for drawing this very clever show to my attention), Damon was asked what has created the situation where so many viewers sit on their couch stream-hopping and lamenting to themselves, “Why are they not making movies for me anymore?” Damon expanded on his comments above, as he began to hilariously sweat from the hot sauce drenched wings he was downing, as follows:
“Well so what happened was the DVD was a huge part of our business and our revenue stream, and technology has just made that obsolete. So the movies that we used to make, you could afford not to make all of your money when it played in the theater, because you knew you had the DVD coming behind the release and 6 months later you’d get another whole chunk, it would be like reopening the movie almost. And when that went away that changed the type of movies that we could make.
I did this movie ‘Behind the Candelabra' and I talked to a studio executive who explained ’It was a $25 million movie, I would have to put that much into print and advertising to market it, so now I’m in $50 million. I have to split everything I get with the exhibitor, right the people who own the movie theaters. So I would have to make $100 million before I got into profit.’ And the idea of making a $100 million on a story about, for example, this love affair between these two people, yeah I love everyone in the movie, but that’s suddenly a massive gamble in a way that it wasn’t in the 1990s when they were making all those kind of movies that I loved and that were my bread and butter.”
No surprise, Damon completely gets it, and though he’s fortunate not to be worried about his next paycheck, he’s clearly disturbed by what he’s seeing unfold all around him. Damon undoubtedly understands that the movies used to be about artists (writers/directors/actors/actresses) coming together to (mostly) tell compelling, relatable stories with universal human narratives. Sometimes they got dressed up a bit with car chases, steamy sex scenes and some clever, but modest SFX. These movies provided joy, escape and inspiration for audiences…and perhaps most important, they furthered hundreds of millions of people’s romantic lives and adventures.
Then DVDs made making movies insanely profitable. Corporations got addicted to the profitability (as did actors and actresses to the backend, just ask Scarlett Johansson) and the movie model became so attenuated that superheroes and animation became the only real survivors. And then the Internet came calling, just as it has with every other industry over the past 25 years. The Internet, broadband, mobile, streaming, Netflix/etc., connected TVs, and consumers’ willingness to pay crashed Hollywood’s party and disrupted the whole thing.
Unsolved, and with Wall Street completely and utterly in love with streaming, Hollywood's dilemma only leads to one place: the ultimate and complete demise of moviegoing. The exact pacing and end date of the demise are not yet clear, but one major indicator of where the journey stands will be when the ONLY movies playing in theaters are the superheroes, “Jungle Cruises” and animation. We are actually probably already on the front end of this indicator.
Hollywood is in a deep, dark box of its own making, without an obvious reset button to push. Speaking strictly with my fan hat on, it’s incredibly sad to see. But as I've said, maybe there’s a silver bullet somewhere down the road that will come to the rescue. That would be great. And stranger things have happened. It’s hard for me to think of exactly what it would be, but if I had to guess, Reese Witherspoon, Hello Sunshine and Blackstone will be somewhere in the mix. Maybe Matt Damon will be too. We’ll see.
Topics: Universal Pictures