Bill Mechanic is a name that most of us don’t know. But, maybe we should.
The head of FOX Filmed Entertainment from 1994-2000, he oversaw probably dozens of movies you’ve seen and loved—not to mention his name sounds like a character Jason Statham is going to play in a bad, VOD action movie.
*Russian gangster lays on the ground bleeding*
Gangster: Damn you, Mechanic. Damn you.
Bill: Hey, I don’t make the problems. I just fix them.
*shoots gangster with a bazooka*
*peels off in a Maserati*
During the six years he ran FOX film, Mechanic was ahead of his time. He talked about concepts like “shelf-life”. He believed in the idea that if a movie was good, and it actually meant something to people, it could earn more money for the studio in the long run than a movie that simply opened big and no one gave two shits about. He talked about turning FOX Films into a brand. He got super fired.
Which sucks because it wasn’t crazy talk—these were ideas rooted in previous success. Before Mechanic ran FOX, he was in charge of Disney’s home video distribution. While he was there, he created the “Disney Vault”—a concept that capitalized on the Disney name and turned their classic films into collectibles. It also revolutionized home video and made the company millions. Looking back, it seems clear Mechanic understood the value of how people felt about Disney movies. Obviously, achieving that feeling isn’t easy—it takes a consistent level of quality and an original brand of storytelling to create an emotional connection to a studio—but he wanted to create that at FOX. Ironic, when you consider that one of the movies that got Mechanic fired was Fight Club.
To be fair, Fight Club opened poorly in the states—only making $37 million by the end of its theater run. After that, it made another $63 million overseas, pushing its worldwide total to $100 million—most likely barely covering its $63 production budget (plus whatever they spent on marketing). That’s not great, but it’s also probably not worth losing your job over. Especially, when you consider that the actual movie was great (that’s kind of the point, right?), and a big return on the domestic budget wasn’t all Mechanic was after. He was after that “shelf-life” idea, remember? And he was right—Fight Club had it.
Not only did it go on to become a cultural touchstone for every frustrated male age 25-40, but it also became one the best-selling DVDs of all time. Exact numbers are hard to find, but most estimates put Fight Club‘s DVD and Blu-ray sales at around $75 million. Those same estimates also put its posters sales at over $12 billion. (Okay, I made that part up.) But I’m pretty sure that when I was in college, Fight Club wall decor came standard in any dorm room that housed more than three dudes. That fanaticism was exactly the kind of impact Mechanic was after. When you look at its resonance on DVD, combined with all the times it did (and will) play on cable, movie channels, internationally, and in special screenings—there’s no doubt that people will be watching Fight Club forever. There’s also no doubt that FOX missed out on the kind of once-in-a-lifetime film they could’ve built a brand around.
To me, the movie represents a lost opportunity—an overlooked solution to many of the problems that film studios face now. As I read through the history of these events, I couldn’t help but notice that it all sounded very familiar.
Building a storytelling brand off the back of one transcendent property? Hmmm…
Creating a library of entertainment that will be watched by viewers for years to come? Let me see…
Oh yeah, it sounds exactly like the thing that is going to put FOX out of business: Netflix.
Bill Mechanic’s concept of “shelf-life” for the studio was no different from Netflix’s concept of building a library of content that could make their streaming service money for decades to come. It sounds like he wanted to turn FOX into Netflix before Netflix was even a thing.
When Mechanic got fired in 2000, people in the industry thought it was weird that he not only admitted it, but openly discussed why the choice was made. He didn’t. He saw an industry that was short-sighted and broken, and he knew that if certain problems weren’t addressed the whole ship was going down anyway (he would know, he oversaw Titanic). He offered a vision on how to change things and they told him “no thanks”. That was 17-years ago—and just look at what has happened to movies since then.
Today, all it takes is a simple thought experiment to realize they’ve gone in the complete opposite direction. That experiment is this: I challenge you to come up with one discernible quality for a movie made by a studio other than Disney. I’ll wait.
- UNIVERSAL? I know more about their theme park than what a “Universal movie” is.
- WARNER BROTHERS? Uh, Batman kinda?
- FOX? I bet they’d fire everyone tomorrow if they could have one-tenth of the brand identity their news division has.
- SONY? Lololol.
No. They’re all just a blurry mess. Messes that are going to find themselves with fewer and fewer options as the landscape of film and television continues to change. Most of their digital competitors—Netflix, Amazon, Hulu—are already starting to produce massive amounts of their own movies and television. And it’s kind of the studios’ fault. A lot of them made a killing over the last few years selling their content to these digital distributors, but the chickens that produced those profits are coming home to roost. A writer’s strike will put a dent in those profits. So will the realization that they’ve been sleeping with the enemy—filling the coffers of their competitors so they could use those assets to destroy them. It won’t be long before the digitals have everything they need to cut out the middleman. And guess who the middleman is in this situation?
As the studios move closer to killing theaters, they might have left themselves in a position where they’re forced to launch their own content channels to stay afloat. But I ask you, who’s going to pay for those? You think I care enough about Sony movies to pay them a subscription fee every month? Think again. All they’ve done the last ten years are trash reboots and Adam Sandler movies. You think I’m going to give them $15 dollars every 15th of the month when they haven’t given a shit about me in 15 years?
No, the only studio that will make it is the same one that actually listened to Mechanic way back when—Disney. If Disney survives, it will be their smart (branded) acquisitions of Marvel and Star Wars, and the classicism of the Disney brand that keeps them afloat. That, and that alone, may allow them to stay alive during the scorched earth, ass kicking that the digitals are about to rain down upon everyone in the business. In 15 years, a Disney movie might still mean something. Those other studios? Well, let’s just say if that’s where you work—you might wanna start updating that resume, bro.
The harsh truth is that the tech companies you’re now battling are smarter, better, and faster than you at almost everything. They sharpened their teeth in the dog eat dog world of tech, and you’ve been chewing on your ass for the last 20 years. The one advantage you might’ve had was in the world of storytelling—building off your decades of experience and your relationships in order to make a better product than your competitors—but it seems pretty obvious you have no interest in doing that. You continue to jettison quality professionals to the world of television, cable, and streaming. And in the process, the thing that’s become most obvious is that the studio system—and the executives who constitute it—now represent a net-negative for filmmaking. The proof is in the numbers:
1) It’s become clear that studios have virtually zero ability to shepherd and facilitate an artist’s vision for a unique project. Certainly, no better than an experienced producer can while working through the channels of independent financing.
2) It’s become clear that the studios are unimaginative and uninformed about the very product they are making. The industry’s obsession with how they market films (instead of with the making of good ones) means more influence from the marketing industry—guys and gals who have never written script, or made a film, and thus lack a fundamental understanding of what it is they’re even doing.
3) It’s become clear that the one thing they should be good at—selling movies—they can’t do. By consistently opting to rehash old (and already proven) ideas, or continuing to make an endless number of sequels, the studios have essentially admitted that they have no clue how to promote anything unless the bulk of the work has already been done for them. “You had one job to do!”
And I don’t say this as some movie purist or from a position of snobbery either. I don’t think that everything should be an “important film”, and I’m not against sequels or franchises in any way. In fact, I love many of them. I get that movies are a business, and I’m not here to argue on behalf of Terrence Malick getting $100 million so he can make a movie about birds.
But I also don’t see how it would take more than ten seconds of thought to realize that you can’t just make sequels and reboots. The ideas for these spin-offs have to come from somewhere—otherwise you’re going to be left with nothing to reboot or sequel. Maybe that sounds obvious, but it obviously bears mentioning because studios are doing nothing to alleviate the problem. Instead, they’ve slated 117 films for remakes, while their original projects continue to hit all-time lows. It’s like they are completely unaware that the majority of movies they’re remaking came from a middle class of films that they’re simply not making anymore.
Here are just a few of the original budgets for films that studios either rebooted, sequeled, or put back into development in the last five years:
- The Terminator – Budget: $6.4 Million
- The Fast and the Furious – Budget: $40 Million
- Raiders of the Lost Ark – Budget: $18 Million
- Ghostbusters – Budget: $30 Million
- Star Wars – Budget: $11 Million
These franchises didn’t start as giant blockbusters. They were middle-range movies that struck a chord with audiences. And yet, the class of films that produced the studios’ most cherished (and tired) properties have been dwindling since the late 1990’s. (Go back further and look at the 1980’s—not a single year’s highest grossing film was a big-budget “blockbuster”.)
The point is original films have to be made. Both for the quality of movies in general and for the quality of the movie business. I get that you studios now believe that only big-budget can mean big-success, but if that’s all you make it doesn’t prove anything. It just becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Your “it’s a business” argument for dismissing original properties gets pretty hard to accept when your analysis of that situation is dead wrong and you’re ignoring the films that earned you those big-budgets in the first place. It’s no wonder you’re having trouble finding financing for new movies when everything you do seems to say, “We have no clue what we’re doing.”
For about two decades now (maybe longer), film executives have increasingly become a sector of the industry built on naysaying; a part of the business that focuses more on why new things can’t be done, rather than doing the hard work it takes to figure out how those things can be done. Too many of them are in the business to make money—financial forecasters whose primary focus is on discovering some “proven formula” for manufacturing hits. Almost 100 years of movie making tells us that such a formula is impossible; a fact they might know if they actually loved movies. But a lot of them don’t, so here they are in 2017, still chasing their ill-advised dreams like a backlot full of Don Quixotes.
For real, Hollywood never ceases to amaze me in its ability to make the most surface level reading of any original success they have. And they never cease to disappoint me when it comes to turning that surface level reading into a bunch of derivative trash.
“Avatar made a billion dollars?! Everything has to be a sci-fi movie with weird aliens in it now!”
You don’t get it, you stupid ass potato. Please, go away. You’re making me type things like “ass potato”.
I mean, really, if you want to do something that makes a billion dollars go move to Houston and work for ExxonMobil. I don’t want you near the thing I care about. The movie business is an industry better suited for dreamers, not for people who dream of being rich. It’s for people with imagination, and your head is in the wrong set of clouds.
I’m sorry if this sounds harsh, but I think I’m echoing a frustration felt by a lot of moviegoers. Over the last two decades, they’ve taken something that was incredibly special to all of us—the movie-going experience—and taken a giant shit in our theater seats. It’s really sad actually. And I don’t know if you can feel it every time you go to movies, but I can—it’s the feeling that films don’t matter anymore.
I understand that our culture has changed a lot over the last two decades, but frankly, I’m tired of hearing excuses. Be a professional. Try harder. Do better. Quit acting like you’re doing a “heckuva job, Brownie,” when the whole movie industry is underwater. For real, if you ran a sports team this bad, you’d be fucking fired.
Too many of the studio heads, their executives, and their parent companies have given themselves a free pass because of “the internet”—blaming its monolithic and evil presence for something that is actually their fault. Movie attendance is down? Well, two decades of dumping crap on people will do that to you. I mean, it’s gotten so bad that we’re all sitting around trying to convince ourselves that the new Star Wars movie is good, when in reality, it’s like 5% better than Scientology. All this because we’re so desperate for anything that might make us feel like the original Star Wars did. Talk about a Jedi Mind Trick.
The studios seem hellbent on the idea that they can build audiences that simply don’t exist. Like getting people to go to a movie is something that can be manufactured. And watching this approach is like watching someone bang their head against the wall to get rid of a headache. They continue to double down on transforming filmmaking into something that more closely resembles an assembly line. They continue to focus on new marketing strategies without having something good to market. You can come up with whatever innovative strategy you want that involves securing release dates, and your Snapchat digital integration that will engage four quadrants—none of that will matter if your movie fucking sucks. And most of them do.
The worst part is that it doesn’t have to be this way. Every once in a while, we get to see what happens when something good and original actually gets made. We already saw it this year with the release of Get Out (made by one of the few production companies that actually knows what they’re doing, Blumhouse). I absolutely loved Get Out, but that love quickly turned into frustration. Leaving the theater, I was thinking, “Why aren’t there ten or twenty movies like this a year? Why has it become so hard to make a film that takes the audience to a place that it’s never been—that is fun, and suspenseful, and surprising?” Sitting there and listening to the audience delight in every moment, it’s so obvious it’s something we all want. How has it become a lost art?
Studios don’t seem to realize that the internet is winning, not because it’s “the internet” (like saying that even means something). It’s winning because it’s doing what movies used to do. When I was growing up (I hate typing that sentence, but it’s true), films were the thing you sought to broaden your horizons and experience new things. Now they’re not. Now the internet is where you go to hear new voices, to engage with thought-provoking ideas, and to experience the truth. The internet is doing the job that studios should have been doing all along—building audiences for people with something unique and engaging to say.
If studios want to keep blaming the changes in the business model on technology, be my guest. But we the moviegoers should never forget that they’re the ones who let this thing slip away because of nothing other than laziness, a lack of passion, and a lack of ingenuity. They opted for short-sighted cash grabs instead; and now they’re going to be left without a new generation of fans alongside a disengaged generation of older ones because of it. The truth is that the studios haven’t cared enough about movies to take a step back and understand why they even matter in the first place. And it only took two decades for them to crater film’s once valued place in the culture.
My greatest fear is that it’s too late. Seriously, it might be (and it absolutely pains me to write that). One of my greatest joys in life is going to the theater, and it would be a devastating development to have that joy taken away. So my god, I hope the studios prove me wrong on this one. I hope they start making the kind of original films people love. I hope they quit chasing trends and start creating them. I hope they shove this whole article right in my goddamn face. I really do.
But I don’t see it happening. Because in order to do that, you have to fail. And the large, greedy, grubby-ass corporations that own them don’t care much for failure. Especially for the sake of art.
Therein lies the problem. When it comes to trying to make good movies, failure is an inherent reality. Not only is it guaranteed, but it is critical to creative success. Read that again—it is critical to creative success. A crucial part of their business that won’t happen if studios continue to insist on “safe” creative choices—like those exist and aren’t always the absolute worst kinds.
The studios still don’t realize that nothing will ever be “safe”, so they might as well live a little and get more adventurous in their decision-making. They don’t realize that in doing so, they’re more likely to make something that’s so original, and so moving, it resonates with people on a profound level. They don’t realize that risky decisions make it far more likely they’ll discover something great they never intended to find. They don’t realize this is the nature of filmmaking.
Never forget: The Fast and Furious is a multi-billion dollar franchise. Multi-billion. With a “b”. Do you, for one second, believe the studio ever thought that a $40 million dollar movie about the subculture of street-racing would become an international sensation? No. They did not. Yet they made the movie anyway, and in the process, stumbled onto something wonderful (and wonderfully profitable). Take a page from one of your most successful franchises—take risks, do something new—you never know where the road might lead you. And if you don’t, well, let’s just say people will continue to flee the theaters faster than Ludacris being chased by a submarine.
Movies shouldn’t be dying. That’s ludicrous.