Moviegoers In Perpetual State Of Deja Vu

It might feel like deja vu at the Hollywood box office: 27 sequels arrive in theaters this year, a new record. For writer Mark Harris, it's just another sign that Hollywood is making fewer original adult dramas. Harris writes about this in his article for the February issue of GQ, "The Day the Movies Died." He speaks to host Michele Norris.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

In the February issue of GQ magazine, the writer Mark Harris argues that Hollywood is in deep trouble. He says the atmosphere in Tinseltown is so cautious that just about anything that steps outside the proven formula for success is ignored or dismissed. In other words, all those executives driving around town in their Range Rovers and Mercedes convertibles are not at all interested in the road less traveled.

So moviegoers are left with a perpetual case of deja vu. This year alone, "Spy Kids 4," "Final Destination 5," more "Harry Potter," more "Pirates of the Caribbean," more, more of what we've seen before.

In his piece, Mark Harris asks: How did we get here? And we've asked him to join us for the answer to that question.

Welcome to the show.

Mr. MARK HARRIS (Author, "Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and The Birth of the New Hollywood"): Thanks so much.

NORRIS: So how did we get here? You argued that Hollywood has almost completely lost interest in making any kind of adult movies.

Mr. HARRIS: Well, I think it was a long road to this bad moment, but one thing that I think most people don't know is that it now costs, in many cases, more to market a movie than it does to make the movie: up to 40 to $50 million per major studio movie, sometimes more for a big summer movie.

And because marketing is so expensive, marketers have a voice now - a very important voice in what movies get made in the first place. And what they want made are movies that are brands, and there's not a lot of room for adult dramas based on just the terrificness of a script that a producer or a studio executive believe would connect to a large audience.

NORRIS: I'm interested in the case studies that you offer, and I want you to explain something. You said the problem, in part, can be traced to one specific film. And for a little fun, before we name that film, I want to play a clip to see if our audience can figure out what we're talking about.

(Soundbite of movie, "Top Gun")

Mr. TOM SKERRITT (Actor): (as Viper) In case some of you wonder who the best is, they're up here on this plaque on the wall. The best driver and his RIO from each class has his name on it.

And they have the option to come back here to be Top Gun instructors. You think your name is going to be on that plaque?

Mr. TOM CRUISE (Actor): (as Maverick) Yes, sir.

NORRIS: We're, of course, talking about...

Mr. HARRIS: "Top Gun."

(Soundbite of laughter)

NORRIS: There you go.

Mr. HARRIS: 1986. A movie that I'm, perhaps, being a little unfair in blaming for everything, but I do think that that moment, the "Top Gun" moment, in the mid-'80s, was a moment when movies pivoted from being about the content to about the packaging. If you, in other words, throw all the right elements together - the star, the noisy soundtrack, the special effect, the poster, the slogan, you know...

NORRIS: The aviator glasses.

Mr. HARRIS: The aviator glasses, the bomber jacket, you can actually make a movie that will appeal to the largest possible audience that provides the kind of adrenalin junkie rush that that movie and so many movies since "Top Gun" have provided, the kind that doesn't have to be very good.

NORRIS: So when Hollywood at that moment stepped into the danger zone -I know I'm using that pun there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NORRIS: What kind of movie stopped getting made? What kind of adult movies are we missing? Could a movie like "Marathon Man" or "Taxi Driver" or "The Godfather" be made and be successful now?

Mr. HARRIS: Well, it actually can be very good business to make adult dramas if you make them for, say, $40 million or less. You know, if you keep the cost under control, you can do very, very well.

The ability to make "The Godfather" or "Marathon Man" or a movie like that is still there. But is the will to make those movies there? You know, if - I fear that if "The Godfather" came along now as a script, studio executives would say, well, it certainly can't be three hours long, and would you think about a rap soundtrack because, you know...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HARRIS: ...hip-hop would really be a good element to bring in. What we'd like to pick up is the urban audience. You know, so...

NORRIS: And maybe a 13-year-old granddaughter or something like that.

Mr. HARRIS: Exactly. Could there be a plucky kid - is there anything for Justine Bieber on "The Godfather"?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HARRIS: So, you know, it's death by a thousand compromises. And, you know, when you do have a movie like "The Social Network," for instance, that represents somebody's very, very clear vision, it's so rare that that happens and that even if a producer like Scott Rudin can do that, he still needs a studio to say yes to it, and that's what's really hard right now.

NORRIS: There's another thing that I want to talk to you about before I let you go. You argue that in the age where marketers reign supreme, the audience is divided into these quadrants that are based on age and gender. And as I read that sentence, my goodness, it is so discouraging to find out that women in Hollywood - women moviegoers are basically treated like lint.

Mr. HARRIS: It's absolutely true. If you're over 25, you're old. If you're under 25, you're not.

NORRIS: Watch yourself.

Mr. HARRIS: If you're - hey.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HARRIS: You know, as someone who's way over 25, I'm not happy about this either, but if you're a woman over 25, you're probably in the most neglected and maltreated of those four quadrants. They really assume that unless there's a Sandra Bullock movie, you'd probably rather stay home. And it becomes a vicious circle because, of course, the fewer movies that are made for grownups, the more we do stay home, the easier it is to stay home.

NORRIS: One point before we let you go. We should note that "Top Gun 2" is in production.

Mr. HARRIS: That's right, because all of the kids who were in their late teens and early 20s when they saw "Top Gun" when it first came out are now running the studios. So if you grew up thinking "Top Gun" is the epitome of what movies can be, you're now in charge. And that maybe is not such great news for those of us who love movies other than "Top Gun."

(Soundbite of song, "Danger Zone")

NORRIS: Mark Harris is the author of "Pictures at a Revolution." We were speaking to him about his feature in GQ magazine called "The Day the Movies Died."

Mark Harris, thanks so much.

Mr. HARRIS: Thank you.

(Soundbite of song, "Danger Zone")

Mr. KENNY LOGGINS (Singer): (Singing) Revving up your engine, listen to her howling roar. Metal under tension, begging you to touch and go. Highway to the danger zone.

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