Books: Sleepless in Hollywood: Tales from the New Abnormal in the Movie Business by Lynda Obst

Okay, first all necessary disclaimers: I worked for Lynda in the time right before she switched from Fox to Paramount. This was in Texas, though; I never saw the L.A. office. Lynda did offer to have me go out there, but at the time I decided to finish my degree at the University of Texas at Austin. Big mistake? Maybe . . . While from her descriptions in Sleepless in Hollywood of life at Paramount it seems I may have dodged the proverbial bullet, I ended up on the opposite coast at Houghton Mifflin (now Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) during its Vivendi years, which I'd say were equally fraught with peril and paranoia.

But that's my story to tell another time. I did enjoy reading Sleepless in Hollywood in part because Lynda is just so . . . Lynda. She's a formidable force despite her petite framing. And that's a good thing. Because in the movie and TV industry what's needed are people willing to say "yes" or "no," people who will make a decision, and Lynda was never afraid to do that. Or if she was, she never showed it.

(I also enjoyed reading about Oly, since I was often the recipient of phone calls from him that began, "Please don't tell Mom, but . . .")

As for Sleepless in Hollywood, let's summarize the chain of events that turned the "Old Abnormal" into the "New Abnormal" (so called because Hollywood has never been normal):
  • People quit buying DVDs because they could find the content online or via streaming services.
  • DVD revenues made up a large portion of the studios' P&Ls—the profit & loss statements that help them determine whether a movie can make any money (and therefore whether or not they should greenlight it).
  • At the same time (or maybe shortly thereafter), the international market began to grow. Now, that market demands BIG movies. China, in particular, will only accept big 3D and IMAX offerings. Studios began to focus on this new revenue stream because they are desperate to make up for the DVD losses.
  • With all their money going to BIG movies, there's nothing left to make little ones. And the studios don't care because, as far as they see it, no one wants little movies anyway.
That's for starters. But wait! There's more!
  • Not all BIG movies are created equal. Stuff like The Avengers makes huge amounts of money, stuff like Green Lantern doesn't. Preawareness becomes the watchword—the studios only want properties they are sure they can sell, stuff fans already know about and will flock to see, stuff that's easy to market and make tie-ins for. Sure, a few core comics fans like Green Lantern, but EVERYBODY loves Spider-Man and Superman and Batman!
  • Marketers are the big hotshots now because if an "intellectual property" (the comics and bestselling books studios look to for content) doesn't already have preawareness, they will [attempt to] fabricate it.
  • And while they're busy making sure they have a product that will sell, the studios also began narrowing their focus on writers and directors with proven track records. What this means is: They don't want your spec script. They don't want your pitch. If you're a newbie writer, director, actor, you'd better be thinking of making your own independent movie because the studios aren't interested. And neither are the agents, since they can't sell you to the studios.
That's the bad news. But there's a slim ray of hope . . .
  • Actors get tired of doing all BIG movies. So they sometimes seek out what Lynda refers to as "tadpoles" (to differentiate from the "tentpole" mentality) in order to stretch themselves . . . Or in hopes of some Oscar recognition. So if you can attach talent to your script or film? There's a sliver of a chance someone might bite. (Still, the industry is no longer as talent driven as it once was. Remember when a big name was all one needed to open a movie? That's less and less true.)
  • And where are the drama writers going? Or even sometimes the BIG movie writers when they're suffering superhero fatigue? (Lynda mentions Jonathan Nolan specifically.) Television. Where characters can be developed and shows are like mini-movies, where originality is welcomed and even encouraged. Lynda herself has begun wading into the television waters with shows like Hot in Cleveland and the forthcoming Helix.
Truthfully, one can hope (as I've mentioned in earlier posts on this site) that the cycle of superhero movies and their BIG movie brethren might finally come to its end. As those big-budget films begin to falter at the [domestic] box office week after week, perhaps the studios will begin to save some of their money, set some of it aside for smaller, more original films, if only for Oscar contention. Lynda points out that many of the indie-style features in the 2012 Oscar race were studio-backed films. Does this presage a shift? Too soon to tell. And of course even if these BIG movies stumble here, overseas they may yet continue in high demand; meanwhile, we'll be served up with cheap horror and only the occasional drama or comedy.

Meanwhile, as technology spreads and gets ever less expensive, everyone is not only a critic but a filmmaker. Digital cameras have become prolific, and just about anyone can make a movie, create a YouTube series, whatever. (I do wish, when getting my Radio-TV-Film degree, I'd done more of the practical studies classes as opposed to cultural studies and writing. As things stand, I would be reliant on quite a bit of aid from others more savvy than I when it comes to filming were I to strike out on turning one of my scripts into something more.)

I'd say Sleepless in Hollywood is good reading for those wanting to understand the current filmmaking model*. There is almost no middle class any more—of society or of movies. BIG studio films or little "tadpole" indies. People with money or people with no health insurance. This is the state of things. Never mind Hollywood being abnormal, it ALL is.

I'll try not to get too discouraged, though. Just got my first little movie produced, after all, and my drama script is getting good feedback. And yeah, I've got some TV ideas in my back pocket just in case . . . Hey, Lynda. Free for lunch?

*Always subject to change without notice.

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