At a University of Southern California event celebrating their new Interactive Media Building, Steven Spielberg predicted that the studio system will eventually implode or face a “big meltdown” created when the right amount of giant-budget films flop all at once. Also at the event, George Lucas echoed the sentiment, and the two discussed the difficulties of bringing projects like Lincoln and Red Tails to fruition despite being two thoroughly established filmmakers. The Hollywood Reporter recorded some of Spielberg’s other insights, including the possibility of ticket price disparities in the future, but the core claim is still the most powerful.
On the one hand, there’s a profundity to it. Spielberg worked hard to get to the view at the top, but it clearly hasn’t blinded him from what’s going on, and what he’s noting is no less than the fundamental alteration of a multi-billion-dollar industry. On the other, there’s also a dime store obviousness to what he’s saying.
Of course Hollywood’s current model will eventually bottom out, just as all earlier models have. Sound destroyed silent films; the VCR changed the classic theater distribution model; and now studios are placing increasingly bigger bets on movies that will see global returns while home entertainment improves every minute. When there’s a single point of failure, you’re bound to hear a bubble burst eventually. When a half-dozen blockbusters bust, you’re bound to hear some film execs screaming.
The major studios will run out of superheroes to reboot, or people will grow tired of them, or a slew of low-budget genre pictures will reap big box office rewards and shift producers’ focuses. Simply put, something is bound to happen that will change the dynamic, and Spielberg is right to allude to the unwieldiness of needing a billion-dollar run to break even as the probable culprit.
As he said, “The pathway to get into theaters is really getting smaller and smaller,” and maybe a paradigm shift will help balance that, but there are no guarantees. After all, it’s easy to lament a perceived lack of originality coming out of Hollywood — ignoring that most studio products have always been adaptations or sequels — but the newest model has led to global dominance and record profits even in years when domestic attendance dropped. There’s little incentive to change now. All the more reason to believe, as Spielberg does, that it will take an aggressive, world-altering event to end the addiction to tentpoles. It’s probably just a matter of time.