It’s summer, you’d like to go to the movies, but you don’t want to see anything that’s a sequel, remake, or reboot, or that features a superhero. Which means you either live near an art house theater or you’re stuck on the couch with Netflix (NFLX). In her chatty new book, Sleepless in Hollywood, part memoir, part “Hollywood business model for dummies,” longtime producer Lynda Obst (Sleepless in Seattle, The Fisher King, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days) sets out to explain when and why studios stopped making movies for grown-ups, the sort of midpriced original fare that was Obst’s specialty.
Obst began her career at 20th Century Fox (NWS) and left to work at Paramount (VIA) in 1998. There, she had a front-row seat for what she calls the transition from the “Old Abnormal,” the period from the 1980s to ’90s when profits were essentially stable, to the “New Abnormal,” which arrived at the end of the aughts and saw the studios focus on huge blockbusters that earn money overseas. During this time, Paramount went through eight presidents and transformed itself from a fiscally and creatively conservative studio making small movies with small profits to the Transformers and Star Trek tent-pole factory it is today.
Obst is also ambivalent about the festival circuit. “How did it become easier for someone who knows no one to make a movie for $150,000 than for someone who knows everyone to make one for $20 million?” asks Obst, who falls into the latter category. To get answers, she plays the naif and talks to her powerful insider pals about what changed. Her argument, ladled out over too many chapters, is that the collapse of the DVD market in the late 2000s forced the studios to cut costs and size and look elsewhere for profit. The elsewhere they could rely on was literally elsewhere: Since the ’80s, international revenue has gone from 20 percent to 70 percent of the studios’ income. The only movies that Hollywood can be sure will sell internationally are films with lots of “pre-awareness,” those based on a character or property people already know—thus all the superheroes and sequels and less time or interest in taking original pitches.
“We’re in a business, if we can make 640 billion dollar rides, why would we want to make 240 billion dollar rides?” an executive says to Obst. It’s what you want to hear if you’re an investor but not if you wish there were more movies like Bachelorette or Silver Linings Playbook. Some of Obst’s complaints about the new Hollywood stem from nostalgia. She misses the “urbane and constructive” casting sessions of yore, although the urbane conversations during said sessions, according to her, had one executive saying of an actor, “He’s hot!” and another replying, “He’s so gay!” She complains about the ubiquity of e-mail and the Internet, which she constantly calls “the Net,” like the ’90s Sandra Bullock movie.
Worse than her nostalgia is her false hope. Obst has gathered copious evidence that suggests the New Abnormal is making the studios money, but she keeps insisting that the movies she herself wants to see will come back. (If they do come back, it will be thanks to people making movies for closer to $150,000, which Obst admittedly does not want to do.) “The smartest studio people are beginning to recognize this sequel fatigue—this confounding craving for something different,” she says, even as Iron Man 3 and Fast & Furious 6 are raking in hundreds of millions of dollars.
The movie business may have changed, but Obst still has romantic comedies she wants to make, so she does what every canny producer should: maintain relationships. She doesn’t want to offend anyone. One gets the feeling that every conversation Obst had for Sleepless in Hollywood was much more fascinating, dishy, and profane than the appropriate, dry chats that ended up on the page. All her sources are described in glowing terms, except the few who are not, in which case she doesn’t print their real names. When she starts discussing her troubled tenure at Paramount, where she managed to produce only two movies in eight years, she writes, “This will be the only part that you will say is not really objective, or where you can hear the sound of axes grinding.”
Disappointingly, that’s a tease. The axes barely appear, let alone grind. Sleepless in Hollywood decries Hollywood’s aversion to risk, to grown-up material, to the truly original, but it’s as safe and sanded down as the most screen-tested movie.