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SwatTalk: "The Oscars and the Future of Film"

with Ben Fritz '99

Recorded on Monday, Feb. 27, 2023



Brandy Monk-Payton ’07 Good evening everyone, welcome to SwatTalk. My name is Brandy Monk Payton. I am class of 2007 and a member of the Alumni Council. We are thrilled to have with us today Ben Fritz, class of 1999, who will be discussing the Oscars and the future of film. For those who aren't familiar with Swat Talk, it is an awesome initiative brought to you by the Swarthmore Alumni Council that engages the broader Swarthmore community in seminars featuring a variety of individuals across industries who excel in their fields and are willing to share their knowledge and experience. This session will be recorded and you will be able to find it on the "SWAT Talks" recordings webpage within two to three weeks. For tonight, we will hear from Ben about his work for the first half, and then have the second half of our time together for Q&A. You can submit your questions using the Q&A function. Please share your name and class year if applicable. So with that said, let me introduce our guest speaker, Ben Fritz. Fritz is West Coast Bureau Chief for US News at the "Wall Street Journal". He previously covered Hollywood for the "Journal", the "Los Angeles Times" and "Variety". His best-selling book, "The Big Picture: The Fight for the Future of Movies", used material from the Sony Pictures hack and dozens of interviews to chronicle how superheroes, sequels, and toy franchises took over Hollywood, and original films for adults became an endangered species. He lives in Los Angeles with his family. So with that Ben, take it away.

Ben Fritz ’99 Thank you so much, Brandy. Thanks everyone for joining. I was very flattered to be asked to do this, and use the occasion of the Oscars that are coming up in a couple of weeks to talk about where the film is, and it's very precarious state. Movies are not the dominant cultural force or business that they used to be and you know, how important are the Oscars, how important is film? That's what I wanna talk about today. You know, sort of base this on all the research I did for my book that Brandy mentioned, and also, you know, almost 20 years of reporting on Hollywood, talking to studio executives and agents and producers and filmmakers and so on. So first let's talk about the Oscars. The Oscars have a problem, which I'm sure a lot of you know, which is quite simply fewer and fewer people are watching them, and I thought I'd start just by sharing this simple chart, which is, as you can see, the number of people watching the Oscars every year has been declining essentially since 2014. Almost every year even, you know, 2021 obviously was the biggest COVID dip, but even still the numbers are nowhere close to where they used to be, less than half. They used to be typically around 40 million. Now we're under 20 million. You know, the Oscars used to be the biggest pop culture of end of the year. You know, one of the biggest TV events of the year, bested only by the Super Bowl, and now they're nowhere close to that. So why is that, right? Well, obviously live television is not as big as it used to be, now that we live in the world of streaming. But that can't be entirely it, because people still watch sports. They still watch the Super Bowl, still watch football. You know, there are questions about, you know, whether or not, you know, Hollywood's diversity issues are turning away people. The fact that it's a long and boring show, the Oscars, but that's been true for decades. That's not a new phenomenon. There is one big change, which I think you can see in this other chart that I will share, which is the, it has to do with the kind of movies that the Oscars honor. There you go. I hope you can see now, this is the number of tickets sold every year for the winning best picture. I did tickets sold rather than box office, because of course, ticket prices go up so much compared to the '80s, it's hard to compare. But, so this accounts for inflation. And as you can see, the average number of people who are seeing the best picture winner of the year has been in precipitous decline. You know, for most of the 2010s, if you look at those numbers, they barely even registered. For the last two years, it's essentially zero. The movies that win picture every year are essentially not the movies that people go to see. You know, are the Oscar voters snobs? Well you know, that's debatable. But I think with the exception of "Black Panther", not many people would argue that the number one movies at the box office over the past decade, like "Avengers: End Game", or "Jurassic World", or any of the "Star Wars" sequels really deserved to win best picture. I think what's really happened, as hopefully you were able to see in that chart, is that people aren't going to see dramas. They're not going to see original movies for adults very much anymore. They're going to see movies that are sequels or spinoffs or reboots, part of the cinematic universe. The types of movies that Oscar voters chose, they've always chosen, are not the types of movies people go to see in theaters anymore. My favorite example to think about is that in 1988, in 1988 "Rain Man" not only won Best Picture, it was the number one movie in America. It's kind of mind boggling to stop and think about that, 'cause the idea that, just try to consider this, the idea that today "Rain Man" would be number one at the box office, that it would beat every Marvel and DC and Pixar and "Fast and Furious" movie is laughable, right? We know there's no chance a movie like that could be number one at the box office. The actual reality is that "Rain Man", which is an original script whose main appeal is its stars, probably wouldn't even get made today. And if it was, maybe you know, if it did get made, it would be like a limited series for a streaming service. There's no way that it would be a $50 million budgeted movie that's released in theaters. And the reason for that is that the economic and cultural order of Hollywood has, it's radically changed. It used to be the TV was, you know, the idiot box, which is where you went to watch sitcoms or soap operas or procedural cop shows. That's because TV networks relied entirely on advertising to make money. They wanted to reach the biggest audience possible, which meant lowest common denominator fare. For most of the 20th century and into the late two 2000s, film was the superior artistic medium. It was a place where people who were interested in original or sophisticated fare for adults went to be satisfied. Yes, studios made plenty of dumb big-budget films like "Independence Day", or "Batman Forever", or "Lethal Weapon III". But they released a wide variety of films, like comedies and thrillers and independent dramas and big-budget star vehicles. That's because movies used to make a lot of money. They mean money at the box office, and then again, when you rented a tape or bought a DVD, and again, when HBO or Showtime paid millions to air it over and over. DVDs in particular were insanely profitable. It cost studios about $1 to make them, and stores paid $15 wholesale to buy them. At the peak of the DVD boom in the early 2000s, when everyone seemed to be buying DVDs on their way out of Walmart or Target or Best Buy, it was almost impossible to lose money on a movie. So studios made a lot of movies, and there was something for everyone, including intelligent adults. Now it's really hard to make money on a movie. The DVD boom turned into a bust by the late 2000s, when it became a lot easier to rent a DVD from Netflix, or the Red Box machines, which you know, you remember seeing in every grocery store. It was easier to rent them than to buy them, so studios made a lot less money that way. And then came the high speed internet, which made it easy to watch a film online, either legally or illegally. So studios had to start cutting back, and they did so by making fewer original dramas for adults. Why? While the economics of TV changed at the same time, with premium cable channels like HBO, and streaming services like Netflix started making original shows in the 2000s and the 2010s. Because they weren't reliant on advertising, but were instead reliant on subscription fees, they can make shows that appealed more to niche audiences. And many of their early customers were affluent, educated adults who wanted sophisticated original programming like "The Sopranos", and "House of Cards" and "The Crown". Once again, people were getting their, and so, I'm sorry. Once people were getting their fill of that type of content at home, they weren't interested in going to theaters to see it. Now look, some of you may like me, love going to theaters, but the fact is that when most people have an option, they prefer to save the money and effort and stay home to watch stuff. And so increasingly the only kind of movies it made sense for studios to produce were big-budget event movies because you can't get those on TV or a streaming service, and they're a much better experience, of course, on the big screen. At the same time by the early 2010s, the international box office was becoming way more important to studios' bottom lines. Theaters were being built in Brazil and Russia and Mexico and most significantly China, and the emerging middle classes in those countries loved going to the movies. But original dramas and comedies are often culturally specific, and they don't translate well overseas. Plus people in China who were spending what for them was a lot of money, didn't wanna see people talking. They wanted spectacle that they couldn't get at home. So the economic forces overseas, like the ones at home, they kept pushing studios toward big-budget and lowest-common-denominator programming. You can sorta see TV and film are essentially switching places. The economic forces were changing their incentives, and therefore changing the type of content that they're making, because you know, studios, TV networks, streaming services, they're just like any other business, they respond to economic incentives. The final component of Hollywood's changing economics has been the immersions of franchises. The most successful movie studio of this century, by far, as I'm sure a lot of you can guess, is Marvel Studios. There's been nothing else like it, hit after hit after hit, and so instead of relying on movie stars who have to be paid a lot of money and can be mercurial and difficult, Marvel built a brand whose characters, like Iron Man and Captain America, are bigger than any individual star. And that was a huge change, right? You remember it was 15 or 20 years ago, you would go to see a Tom Cruise movie or a Tom Hanks movie or a Julia Roberts movie, or a Denzel Washington movie. Those were the main reasons people went to see a film, and the studios paid people like them or Adam Sandler, tens of millions of dollars to essentially do whatever they wanted, because they were the brands. But what Marvel proved is that no, the intellectual property can be the brand, the franchise can be the brand, it can be more important than the stars. And it's a way way better business, you know, on a global basis. And also by doing that, Marvel was able to make the movies they wanted on their schedule, instead of relying on the stars. And so Marvel was able to tie together all of its films into one grand narrative, and it was able to convince fans to see two or three movies every year. You know, in the old model when you were trying to use the same stars, for each movie you had to, it took a few years before a sequel could come out. But in the Marvel cinematic universe, there's a new film that ties into the last one every few months. So for fans, you know, these are must-see movies that were worth leaving home. They're worth spending money to see them in a theater. And you know, it's an incredibly successful business, which is why Marvel is, you know, has had an unprecedented level of success. Franchises work well in the US, and they work really well overseas, because people are drawn to familiar brands. If you're gonna leave your home and spend like something like $50 for tickets and popcorn, or if you have kids and have to hire a babysitter, maybe $100, I think most people would rather know what they're going to get. And when you go to watch the latest iteration of "Transformers" or "Fast and Furious" or "Toy Story", you can be pretty sure you know what you're gonna get. It's not gonna surprise you, for better or for worse. So I mean, and the fact is now if you're gonna take a gamble and watch something original, that might be great or might be awful, it's the kind of thing that in Hollywood they describe is execution-dependent, because you don't know going in whether it's gonna be great or not, if you're gonna see that kind of content, most people would rather do it at home, because the marginal cost of watching something at home on Netflix is zero. And if you don't like it, you can just switch to something new with a few clicks of the remote. So people would much rather watch original stuff at home, and when they're gonna spend a lot of money and go outta the house, they wanna know what they're gonna get. So again, more forces pushing the studios toward franchises, towards predictable types of movies. In addition, franchises are way more profitable in the long run. Just to take one example, the "Despicable Me" movies, they make a lot of money on their own. Each one is profitable, but also each success spawns more sequels and spinoffs, and toys and pajamas and theme park rides, right? Creates a whole new brand, with money coming for years and years, whereas to take a successful drama like "La La Land", right? That movie made a lot of money, but that was it. It was one and done. There's no ""La La Land" theme park ride in the works, to my knowledge. Now every major entertainment company has their own streaming service that competes with Netflix. You know, there's Warner's HBO Max, there's Disney Plus, there's Paramount Plus, there's NBC's Peacock. During the Pandemic, they all started releasing films on those services out of necessity. But it turned out that people got used to that convenience. They like watching their movies at home on a streaming service, and they're not returning to theaters the way that they used to go. Every movie theater in America is back in business, but box office receipts were off by about one-third last year from their pre-pandemic totals, and there's no indication they're ever going to fully recover. People are just not going to movies the way they used to. On average people, the average American would go to see something like five movies every year, and the data shows now it's more like three. So because of that reality, with a handful of exceptions at each studio, they now release pretty much all of their non-franchise films directly on their streaming service. Maybe there'd be a small theatrical release in major cities, but that's pretty much it. They're not releasing these dramas nationwide, again with very few exceptions. And of course the companies that came outta Silicon Valley and are now in entertainment, like Netflix and Amazon and Apple, they rarely released their movies and theaters at all. So last year's best picture winner was CODA, which was distributed by Apple. And if you look up its box office grosses, the number is zero. I mean, essentially nobody saw that movie in a theater. If you live in a major city, there may have been a few theaters where you could see it for a few weeks, but basically nobody did. Which means essentially that the best picture winner last year was a made-for-television film. It's kind of amazing when you think about it, right? It's a movie, it was the best movie of the year, and basically nobody saw it in a movie theater. Recently Wall Street has begun pressuring entertainment companies to increase the profits from their streaming services, rather than pursue growth at all costs. Once again, movies are the victims, particularly original ones for adults. They cost more to produce per hour than most TV shows, and they often get lost in the overwhelming sea of content that we all find on the homepage of streaming apps. I don't how many of you have even heard of, let alone watched, movies called "Emancipation", or "Bardo", or "Raymond and Ray", or "The Independent", or "The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Parks". These are all mid-budget original movies for adults that premiered on streaming services last year, and came and went with virtually no one noticing, including Oscar voters, and yet I had to look them up myself because I didn't know that most of those films existed either, and I follow this stuff for a living. So what does that mean for the future of film? Well, there are going to be fewer movies made. As a result, there are probably also going to be fewer theaters, and the tickets are gonna be much more expensive than they are now, 'cause most people are only gonna go a few times a year to see their favorite major franchise sequels. It's not gonna be the way, you know, it was for a lot of us growing up, when you weren't sure what to do on a Saturday night, so you just went to the local multiplex and found something random to watch. The non-franchise movies that do get made are usually going to go straight to streaming, but there are gonna be fewer of those as well. So if you're someone who loves movies, which you know, we would define as a visual story that's meant to be finished in one sitting of two or three hours rather than episodic over eight or 10 episodes and potentially several seasons, that's bad news. Especially you like seeing movies in theaters, and you don't live in a major city close to one of the few remaining art house cinemas. On the other hand, despite some recent cutbacks, there is undeniably more content, broadly defined, being released than ever before, right? I'm sure we all know if you turn on Amazon or Netflix or Disney Plus or HBO Max, there's so much stuff, right? You probably can't keep track of it all. You haven't heard of half of it. Your friends are telling you all the time, "Oh, have you seen this show, have you seen this show? Have you seen this movie?" And you know, I actually have a list on my phone of things I try to keep track of watching, and it just gets longer and longer. You know, no matter how much I watch, seems like I cannot keep up. So there's so much good stuff to watch, and if all you care about is just seeing good entertainment, you don't care if it's technically a movie or if it's technically a limited series, or if it's just a television show or whatever, and you don't care what kind of screen you watch it on, then we live in a golden age, I'd have to say. This is the best time for making content and finding the type of content you watch that's really ever been in our lifetimes. There's just more good stuff to watch. So to sorta come back around to where we started, what does this mean for the Oscars? Well the Oscars were created to honor movies, not TV shows, but as CODA proved, the Academy is already stretching the definition of film to include ones that virtually nobody saw in a theater. Now look, this year's best picture is, based on the awards we've already seen, you know, the Producers Guild Awards, the SAG Awards, et cetera, it's likely to be "Everything Everywhere All at Once". I think that would be good for a variety of reasons. It's a good movie, it's really cool, it's creative, and it grossed $73 million domestically, which would be the second-highest total for a best picture winner in the past decade. But still, if you consider that chart I shared earlier, it's on the very low end. "Rain Man" grossed $173 million in 1988, when tickets cost less than half as much as they do now. So the bar for success for an original movie has gotten much lower, and the fact that we consider "Everything Everywhere All at Once" to be a big hit, is kind of a sad statement basically, on what it takes to be a hit these days if you're not a Marvel movie or a "Fast and Furious" movie. And so, as movies become a less and less important part of our popular culture, I think the Academy Awards probably will as well. They're never gonna get back up to anything like Super Bowl levels. They're not gonna go away, but they may end up being more, they may end up being an event that's more on the scale of the Tony Awards honestly, you know? Which is, people love theater, they're big fans, you know? There's a few million people who watch the awards every year and these are the people who can afford to go see the Broadway shows a few times a year and spend a lot to see them. I think that's where we see film going, it's a little bit more of a niche. And I think for people who are growing up now, the idea that movies are this distinct category of entertainment that's different than, let alone superior to a TV show, a limited series, maybe even a YouTube series that they watch on some app on their phone or tablet, it's not gonna be important. And the idea that there's an awards show that's distinctly to honor movies is only gonna appeal to a subset of Americans who care about film as a distinct art form. It's certainly not a superior business anymore. And you know, movies matter, but they don't matter the way they used to, and they don't matter that way to as many people. And the only way that they do, the only thing that makes them stand out is the big franchise, which is great if you love them. And I think it's great that, you know, that a lot of them are fun. But it's kind of a shame that we're not gonna have the broad array of movies and we're not gonna, and for those movies that are not franchises, that a lot of us are not gonna see them in theaters in the dark with a crowd of people where nobody's, at least if they're well-mannered, nobody's looking at their phone, nobody's distracted, and you're with a crowd of people watching a film all together. The other great thing I think about seeing movies in theaters that I'm sad about losing is when everybody sees a movie at the same time, then we come out and we talk about it. That's how a film becomes an event. I think when we all have it on our Netflix queue, and we just kinda get around to watching it whenever we want to. Maybe I see it right away this week, maybe Brandy keeps it on her list and doesn't get around to it for a few months, then you don't have a cultural event. And you think of a film like "Get Out", you know? It became a cultural event because it was in the theaters for like, about a month. We all saw it at around the same time. And when we did, we saw it in a crowd with our friends, our family, and they came out talking about it. That's what creates cultural events. It's very rare to see a Netflix show or an HBO Max show become a cultural event. You know, there's very few that do, and most of the stuff that Netflix puts out just kinda come and go. Some of us watch it, some of us don't. And they don't make a big cultural impact the way that movies do, the way that movies in theaters do. And you know, that's what I'm worried about losing. I think it's great that we have so much content to watch now. I think it's great that more people who make their content can get it seen. But it's a shame that, you know film, which has a special power to bring people together in a theater and create a really memorable moment, is declining and declining in cultural importance. And of course the Oscars, which are meant to honor them, are declining along with it. And on that slightly pessimistic note, I think I'll pause and maybe turn it over to Brandy, see if you have a few questions for me before we go to the audience.

Brandy Monk-Payton ’07 Thank you so much Ben, for this wonderful presentation. As a film and TV professor, I find it both fascinating and distressing, it sort of laid out about the industry. So yes, if you have questions, please put them in the Q&A feature, so I'll give you a couple of minutes to start doing that. My, I guess one question that I have, and you know, on this kind of sour note, but maybe, maybe not. I mean, we would need the entire night to discuss sort of Disney and Marvel and you know, what I call kind of the tyranny of the MCU what it has, the impact it's had on Hollywood. Do you foresee there being an exhaustion of exciting content? I feel as though, particularly now with the latest "Ant-Man", maybe even the the latest, you know, "Dr. Strange" movie, right? There were fringe convos about them being kind of boring, despite sort of Sam Raimi, right? Despite having, you know, injecting new blood into these franchises in terms of the directors. So I wonder, do you foresee an exhaustion of exciting content, and perhaps in decreasing audience interest with this kind of transmedia storytelling across film and TV, right? The kind of imperative that you must watch the Disney Plus show before you can watch the film, and then it kind of goes in this cycle.

Ben Fritz ’99  I do think, that's a good point Brandy, I do think that Marvel is in danger of having overdone it. There are, especially now that there's so many TV shows on Disney Plus as well, and you can see it in the results. So right, so we don't know the ratings for the Disney Plus show, they don't release that, hard to say. But we know that the latest "Ant-Man", for example, its second weekend drop was huge. It was the biggest second weekend drop in the box office of any Marvel movie. We also know that a couple of years ago they released "Eternals", which was the first true Marvel flop. I mean it was just a big disaster, it lost a lot of money. So the idea that everything is must-see, I think has become a little bit less true, just 'cause, and I'm sure that has to do with the fact that there's so much to watch. Instead of two or three movies per year, there's two or three movies per year, plus three or four or five shows on Disney Plus to watch. And there's so much other great content out there. So people are starting to skip stuff. It's becoming a little bit, the must-see. So Marvel, I think Marvel has had a bit of a misstep in that, and I think they may, you may see them start to correct and pull back a little bit, to try to make each piece of content a little special. That said, people have asked me in the past, "Oh, are fans gonna get tired of superheroes? Are we gonna go back to seeing original stuff?" And the fact is, there's really no evidence of that. Superheroes are you know, it's actually, I don't think of it as a genre like say westerns. I think of it almost as like a way of storytelling. And there are superhero movies that are comedies like "Deadpool", there are R-rated dramas like "Logan", there are, you know, action and adventure movies, there are science fiction movies like "Guardians of the Galaxy". You can do lots of stuff in the superhero framework. And you know, there's really, while you know, some movies do a little bit better and some of we're seeing so a little bit worse, overall, this is the most successful type of film storytelling that we've had. And there's no evidence that fans are tired of superheroes overall.

Brandy Monk-Payton ’07 Thank you, so we have a question. Anonymous, "What is the role of reviewers in the success, both financial and for awards, of movies, and how has that changed over time?"

Ben Fritz ’99 Yeah reviewers, that's interesting. I mean, reviews, the thing that's had a huge influence on film from reviewers, for better or worse, is the rise of Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, right? And the scores that they have. So for a lot of people, reviewers are just sort of an input into Rotten Tomatoes, and a score that comes out on the other side. On the one hand, that's very powerful. I think a really bad Rotten Tomato score is, especially for a movie that doesn't have a built-in brand, can be really damaging. And on the other hand, a high one can be very important, and 'cause you see Rotten Tomato scores being advertised on film. And if you go look at the movies on iTunes, they show the Rotten Tomato score. But if you actually like film criticism, as in you care about what they write, and you actually like to read a certain film critic, and you care about their intelligence, I mean, in that sense, they've become less influential. I don't think the idea that just, you know, the "Wall Street Journal" panned this film or loved this film makes as big of an impact anymore. And I don't think people even know who their favorite critics are, except again, if we're a niche audience who really cares about film criticism. So I think the compilation score of reviews has become more important than it used to be, but the individual critics have become less.

Brandy Monk-Payton ’07 Great, Andrew Scott Taylor, class of 2009 says, "Do you think the Academy's strategy of expanding the number of best picture nominees to 10, in order to potentially include more blockbusters, right? We think about 'Top Gun', will ultimately have any impact on viewership numbers for the awards show?"

Ben Fritz ’99 Well, it hasn't so far. I mean, they started that in the, I think the early 2010s, and we've seen the number fall. And I think that's in part because it's a little bit of a scam, because there's 10 best picture nominees, but there's five best director nominees. And if you look at the best director nominees, you usually know what the actual favorites are, right? Which are the ones that are really likely to win. It's very, very rare that a movie wins best picture and it's not even nominated for best director, which is why I would be shocked if "Top Gun" or "Avatar", which are the two, you know, box office blockbusters this year that are nominated for best picture win. I think people will tune in if they think a movie that they love actually has a real chance of winning a bunch of awards. But so far just this idea of, "Oh, we're throwing a bone to 'Black Panther', even though it's not really gonna win anything," has actually fooled many people.

Brandy Monk-Payton ’07 Thank you, Jason Sanger Lee says, "Do you foresee a day when the awards system, particularly the Oscars, changes its format to consider streaming series like "The Sopranos" alongside feature films, or will it always be Emmys, Academy Awards, film and TV separated that way?"

Ben Fritz ’99 That's a great question Jason, because I've always, I've always thought that would kind of make sense. I mean, the idea that like you have one awards show for films and one awards show for TV shows doesn't really make sense the way people consume content now. And you know, the Golden Globes has a lot of issues, as some of you may know, but one reason it's kind of a fun show is they do film and TV together in one night. And I think it would make sense to have one kind of mega awards show that combines the best of TV and film, and cares less about how each is strictly defined, because again, people don't have those strict categories in their minds. It's just, it's this old-fashioned thing where there's an Academy of Motion Pictures and there's an Academy of Television that still exist in Hollywood, and they're distinct organizations with their own distinct awards show. But I think if they were smart, they would start putting it together. I mean, I think every year I, you know, I talk to friends here in LA about what their favorite film is, and some people end up saying, "Well, my favorite film last year actually was 'White Lotus'," right? Which is a TV show, but people think of it as, it's essentially one whatever, a seven or eight-hour story. And for them maybe that was their favorite story, you know? And you know, and honestly, you could think of all the Marvel movies as essentially an episodic TV show that just keeps going and going and going, even though they're technically films. So I don't think these distinctions make as much sense to consumers anymore. And I think if the Academies were actually willing to do it, which they're currently not, it would actually be smart and cool.

Brandy Monk-Payton ’07 Great yeah, there's a lot of questions about sort of streaming, and sort of that kind of collapse that you just laid out. Michael Henley says, "That you make a good case for the loss of movie as a cultural event. However, might not the multi-season episode series be replacing the standalone movie in our culture, and is it possible that social networks can replace the buzz created by the in-theater experience?"

Ben Fritz ’99 I mean, that's an interesting question Michael, and I think it happens occasionally. Sometimes you'll see a, you know like "Game of Thrones", certainly right, in this last, you know, as the seasons went on, you know, every Monday morning people were talking about it, right? So if something is really successful, and I think if they release it weekly, you can build buzz, but it's rare and it's hard. Maybe a few TV shows do that every year. One thing that's true that streaming services have learned, if you wanna build buzz, it's much better to do a weekly release. You know, Netflix has always been committed to this, where they just drop the whole season at once. And the problem with that is, you know, you can't build buzz when it's just the whole thing to watch all at once. It's just an event and the fans watch it in two nights and it's over, right? Which, TV shows that are released weekly do a much better job of building some of that buzz. But I still think it's rare, and it doesn't happen as often as it does in film, you know? And I bet a lot of us can, when we think back to some of our favorite movies, we can remember, "Oh, I remember being in line to see 'Jurassic Park', honestly, when I was a kid," for example. You know, it's pretty rare that I remember where I was when I watched, you know, a TV show. Just doesn't have that kind of force that going out of the house and being in the crowd does.

Brandy Monk-Payton ’07 Yeah, Marshall Curry asks, "When streaming first came out, there was a lot of talk about how a long tail would enable unusual independent films to find audiences and justify their expense. Are you surprised this hasn't turned out to be correct?"

Ben Fritz ’99 I'm actually not surprised. I remember when that book, "The Long Tail" came out, and I honestly, it was pretty clear to me it was wrong. It didn't get the economics of the entertainment business anymore, which is, the fact is, these big-budget blockbusters make a lot more economic sense. Look, the great thing about, you know, YouTube and Spotify, is there's room for everything, right? So you can, if you make a song now or you create a video, you can get it released. You don't have to go through the gatekeepers of studios or networks or labels anymore. But you know, 99% of that stuff doesn't make any money. You know, you need to get attention, and it's very hard to get attention now. And the way they get attention is to have a big brand behind it. So, and in fact, the more content there is out there, I think the more these brands matter, because they cut through the clutter. You know, everybody knows about the latest thing from Marvel or "Star Wars", or you know, "Mission Impossible" or whatever, right? But the like, "Oh, you know, some random artists just created a really cool new short film they released on YouTube." Well, it's great that anybody can see it, but the odds that you're gonna find out about it are, they're just minuscule. So you know, I think it would be great if a lot more content was making more money and the playing field was more even. But the fact is that, the more stuff there is to sift through, the more important these sort of big blockbuster brands are than they even used to be.

Brandy Monk-Payton ’07 Brendan Nyan from Class of 2000 asks, "How are changes in the Chinese market affecting what films get made or will get made? If China were closed to most American films, how much would change? And also what do you think about separate awards categories for mid and high budget films?"

Ben Fritz ’99 China has a huge influence on what gets made. Since the Chinese market became big in the 2000s, the late 2000s and 2010s, you would see studios changing scripts and self-censoring ahead of time, to make sure their movies would get past the Chinese censors. And you know, there's some movie brands that are bigger in China than they are here, some of the "Transformers" movies for example, and they only get made because of that. More recently, you know, during tensions during the Trump administration and then, you know, continuing now, China has been, what's the word? They've been off and on whether they're letting American movies in, and that's actually cut off some revenue from Hollywood studios. And also the Chinese movie business, the movies they make themselves have become more successful. Actually more Chinese people are seeing more Chinese movies, whereas they used to kind of only see American movies, and that's definitely hurt Hollywood. But still, you know, the taste of Chinese consumers have a big impact on what Hollywood makes and, you know, whatever they need to do to get their films in there, to get them past the censors and get released in China will always really matter to studios. I don't know if you've all heard this, but there was a remake of "Red Dawn" that was made about a decade ago. It's one of my favorite stories I've ever done. And the producers, you know, the original "Red Dawn", the enemies were the Soviets. Then when they produced the remake, they were like, "Oh, we'll make the enemies the Chinese." But in between the time it was made and when it was set to be released, China became this big open market for movies, and no studio would release it because they knew that it would offend the Chinese government, and then China might not let that studio release other films in China. So the producers had to go back in and spend millions of dollars, use digital effects, to change every Chinese flag to a North Korean flag, change every reference to China to North Korea, because nobody cares about offending North Korea at all. The other thing, oh, different categories for mid-tier, for mid-budget and high-budget films, I am skeptical of that. There was, you know, a brief moment at the Oscars a year or two ago where they were gonna have a separate category for like, best blockbuster or best popular film. And then that got killed, because I don't know, then it's like, "Well if this isn't the real," like which one is the real best picture, you know? Like, which one is just like throwing a bone to the fans? Again, I think if you just have this award for best big-budget film, it doesn't feel like, well how does that, you know, is "Top Gun" better or worse than "Everything Everywhere All at Once", you know? Shouldn't there be a way that they go head to head? So, and where exactly do you draw that line of, you know, between the budgets? So I'm really skeptical of that. But you know, you certainly do hope that Oscar voters are willing to consider, you know, a broad array of films and you want the, you know, on the one hand you don't want to see "Ant-Man" win best picture, that would be stupid, right? On the other hand, you want the Oscars to be relevant to the kind of movies most people are seeing.

Brandy Monk-Payton ’07 Thank you, Anonymous says, "What are the economics behind a true best picture winner? Is the era of a blank check movie for a true auteur ending, especially post-'Babylon'? How much does a studio or financier really get from a best picture winner if it's a financial dud?" And I think also someone wanted to know, clarify what the 1997 movie was that won best picture that got, that everyone went to see. Widely viewed.

- Sure. The movie that throws off the chart is "Titanic".

Brandy Monk-Payton ’07 Okay, got it.

Ben Fritz ’99 That's the one, yes. That's the one. So the economic, it used to be that winning, I remember actually in the Sony Pictures hack, there actually was an analysis that when, if you win best picture, you get, I forget what it was, but X million dollars more of DVD sales, you can expect. You know, and when you're nominated, you could release it in more theaters. And so overall winning best picture used to be, you know, something in the tens of millions of dollars more. Now, I mean, I think there's virtually no impact. Maybe you'll get some more views on your streaming service where the film is allowed. So this idea that, "Oh, we'll write a blank check to this auteur so that we can win best picture," the economics of that as far as, "Oh, it'll make money for us in the long run," don't make sense. The only way you see companies doing it, is if they're trying to establish themselves in Hollywood and be taken seriously. So when Netflix first started making movies, they gave pretty big blank checks to filmmakers like Scorsese, you know, who made the "Irishman", for an example, for God knows how much money. And Alfonso Corone who made "Roma", which was a very expensive movie for what it was, a black-and-white original drama, you know? And they were in hopes of winning best picture, which they actually never did, because Netflix wanted to be seen as a place where serious filmmakers would go and work with. That was the reason they did it, not because it would make an impact on their bottom line. And that does point, you know, to this ongoing trend where the idea that there are certain filmmakers who are just given blank checks to make a great movie, and that barely happens anymore. And you know, you pointed to, you know, to "Babylon", which is a recent example of one of the rare times that happened, and it was a total dud. That movie lost a lot of money for Paramount. You know, those movies are still, as I said, very execution dependent. And if they don't come out perfectly, people won't go see them. Steven Spielberg, right? One of the best, most respected directors in the history of Hollywood, made his film, "The Fabelmans", came out last year, it was nominated for best picture. I mean, check the box office gross, it's dismal. I don't know exactly what it is right now, but last I saw it was maybe like, less than $20 million. Nobody, nobody cares to see it. These are just, you know, if it's not a blockbuster, almost nobody will see it. I think the only directors left who are brands of their own, who any studio would basically a blank check to, I think there's two left. There's James Cameron and there's Christopher Nolan. They are both brands on their own, and they keep having hit after hit, and that's it. I don't think there's any other director who studios would just give a blank check to anymore.

Brandy Monk-Payton ’07 Interesting, so Dallas Brennan Rexer, class of 1994, "I work in documentary film and I have seen that marketing budgets are increasing at a rate that outpaces the production budgets. Is this new cost of cutting through the noise part of the problem? It feels like the bulk of the films being funded slash distributed lately, are those with celebrities and influencers are attached, limits the scope of the films being released."

Ben Fritz ’99 Yes right, so marketing is very hard now, and especially if you're making documentaries, right? These aren't based on well-known brands, and you need something to stand out. So yeah, they love to have celebrities or a salacious true crime story, right? Something that will stand out. And marketing is really, really hard now because there's so much stuff grabbing, you know, competing for our attention, as we all know, on social media and everything else. So again, it used to be that there was just so much less content being produced, in every sense of the term, whether it's television or online video, which didn't exist anymore, or movies that, people knew everything that was coming out. You know, if you were a fan, you knew what was coming out on the TV networks in the fall, and you knew what the handful of movies being released each week and you could keep track, and now it's just impossible. So yeah, if you're making a documentary movie, it doesn't matter how great it is or not, like you have to have serious marketing behind you in order to cut through the clutter. Even if you're lucky enough to get onto Netflix or Paramount Plus or whatever, right? Still, are people gonna find it on the homepage? You know, it's not a guarantee. You know, whereas it used to be, well if Warner Bros is gonna release your film, people are gonna hear about it, some people are gonna see it. But now, you can be released by a major company, and still virtually nobody watches it if you don't have a good marketing budget and don't get some good buzz.

Brandy Monk-Payton ’07 Thank you. Another question, going back to streaming. "So Paramount, HBO Plus, Netflix, Hulu, Prime, et cetera, how about convergence of streamers? Could it be the case that cable, or can we do different kinds of bundling?" I mean we're already doing that, right? Streaming is the new cable, which is hilarious, I tell my students. But yeah, how is that sort of industry kind of operating?

Ben Fritz ’99 Yes, there will inevitably be fewer streaming services in a few years. Right now everybody is launching their own, trying to stake their own ground, get a bunch of subscribers. And for one of two reasons, like the economics are either, you'll be one of the successes, you'll be dominant, or you'll have enough that you'll be at attractive to get bought. So if you look at the second tier, right? The top tier, there's Netflix for sure, there's Disney Plus for sure. Then there's, Amazon and Apple are primarily tech companies, right? They're not primarily entertainment companies, so they're just doing their own thing. They don't even care if they make money per se in entertainment, right? They're sort of, Amazon does makes entertainment to get you to subscribe to Prime, and keep subscribing to Prime, and Apple, same thing. They wanna bring you into the Apple universe of devices. But for the rest of them, if you're not Netflix or Disney Plus, right? The rest of them, there's HBO Max, Peacock, Paramount Plus, they're not all still gonna be around. I think you'll see one company or another buying each other and merging their streaming services. I mean, Peacock and Paramount Plus would be an obvious combination. Wouldn't be surprised if NBC Universal buys Paramount, for example. Or if Warner and NBC Universal merge, and HBO Max and Peacock kind of fold into one, you're gonna see stuff like that happen. There will be fewer of the streaming services. This idea of bundling them together, well you know, I actually don't think you're going to see that happen because each company wants to have a direct relationship with the consumer, right? So Disney wants you to pay money to Disney, they want you to have a Disney login, they wanna know who you are, Brandy, because then they know what you're watching, and they can keep track of that and they can use it to market to you and so on, right? If you let, you know, say Spectrum, your cable company, or Verizon sell you, you know, the streaming package, which includes Disney Plus and HBO Max and whatever, then Verizon has the relationship with you, they have your data, and Disney and Warner don't. So you're not gonna see companies selling a bunch of streaming services together in one package, the way you used to get all your channels on cable. But you are gonna see fewer streaming services, you're gonna see some companies buying each other, and there's no way the market can sustain all the ones that we have now.

Brandy Monk-Payton ’07 Yeah, no that definitely makes sense. And especially, you know, yeah, we've been immersed in this environment of peak TV, and there's going to be a bust. And something that I've been interested in is, you know, a lot of these companies, right, are canceling programs unexpectedly, right? Many that feature diverse representation. And so what do you make of these kinds of business strategies that are, you know, seen as tax write-offs, right? What are the ramifications for creatives, right? But then also, in terms of the audience and building a kind of trust or a compact, right? Between an audience, you know, that gives the information to a streamer, right? And that streamer has a license to kind of, you know, get rid of one of their favorite shows without accounting for it. So yeah, could you say more about that?

Ben Fritz ’99 Sure Brandy, it's a great question. So first, just to talk about why this is happening. I mean, entertainment companies, like most public companies, they really respond to what Wall Street wants. And a year ago, wall Street was like, "Grow your streaming. We just wanna see growth, grow, grow, grow." They don't care if the streaming services are losing money. So they were all just investing and producing as much content as they could to get people to subscribe as much as they could, and they didn't care if they were losing money as long as the subscription numbers went up. Then some point last year, I think because of some problems in Netflix's projections, financial projections, all of a sudden they were like, "Hey, we want you to actually make a profit on these streaming services." So they were all losing money and they all said, "Shoot, we're gonna have to cut back," and they're producing fewer stuff. And also, as you pointed, another way to save money is these write-offs. And it actually, you would think from the outside, well what does it cost, just keep a random TV show on your service, what does it matter? But actually at certain times, certain business expenses, it actually costs money to keep it on, and it saves money to get rid of it. And especially when Discovery and Warner merged, because the cost of the merger, there was a moment where they could get a tax write off for anything they killed as part of the merger. So a bunch of shows disappeared from HBO Max, and they're you know, they're just making economic decisions. It's sort of all, they see it as, they're a business the same way that, you know, General Mills might stop making a brand of cereal. But the fact is, in entertainment people, fans really care, you know? Content is meaningful to people. And you pointed to one reason it can be meaningful, of course, is for a lot of minorities, you know, having representation in a TV show or film is really important to people. And when something just disappears, and all of a sudden you just can't find it anywhere, you know, people really get hurt and it really affects them. And you know, the CEOs kinda don't care. They're just looking to, you know, make their shareholders happy. But that's what goes to show that this stuff, it's not just a business. It's really meaningful to people, and I think it is a shame that there's not some mechanism that essentially they can, you know, sell it back to people, or make it available on some, you know, just somehow keep it alive. 'Cause rather than the economics working, in order to save money, they have to literally eliminate it from the internet, which sucks.

Brandy Monk-Payton ’07 Yeah and I mean, and you were saying the DVD bust, right? Like the kind of impermanence of the archive, right? The sort of physical media is now gone too, you know? So you know, really not having anywhere to find these until, you know, they-

Ben Fritz ’99 Yeah that's a great, right, that's a great point. It used to be, if you were a fan of some canceled TV show, well you could buy the DVDs yourself, right? Now it just disappears, it's gone entirely.

Brandy Monk-Payton ’07 Yeah, so a couple of questions. Jonathan Shakes says, "Might someone invent a new form of movie unrelated to superheroes that attracts people back to theaters? What elements might help that new form succeed?" And then tacking onto that, Bernard Bennett asks, "Will art houses survive?"

Ben Fritz ’99 So for the first question, I certainly hope so, right? I like superhero movies fine, I think plenty of them are good, but they do feel a bit oppressive at this point, and you wanna see more other kinds of films. So it should be doable, I would hope so. I just don't know what it is, you know? And I'm not a filmmaker, so I hope that's right. I hope people are thinking about it. I'm sure people are thinking about it. I hope that they succeed in a way that just feels like there's more diversity, diversity in the sense of types of storytelling that we can get on the big screen, and that it still draws big audiences. But right now there's not a lot of it. And even, you know, films that aren't technically superhero films, like "Fast and Furious", they kinda feel more and more like one, to be honest, for me. So I hope that's true, I'm sure it will be eventually, but it hasn't come along yet unfortunately. Art house theaters on the second question, you know, they're like the vinyl record stores, right? I mean, there are still some left, but there's not gonna be a lot. But I think there will be some in the major cities, because there are still some people, who even when the movie is available on that streaming service, they would prefer to go to the theater. That is a market, it's not a big market, but it is a market. And so you know, and if you're, you know, say Searchlight Pictures, which releases a lot of their movies on Hulu simultaneously, or even you're Netflix, you know? You're happy to release your movie in a theater. You have nothing to lose. You know, people who wanna go spend the 15 bucks for a ticket, great. So you'll see a few art house theaters in cities that have big enough audiences to sustain them. But you know, it's not gonna be a big business. And unfortunately, if you don't live in a major city, you may not have access to see these films in theaters at all.

Brandy Monk-Payton ’07 Yeah, yeah and I mean, I think that you know, speaking to that, you know, will people go back to the theaters? I mean there's, you know, genre movies are still, you know, doing well. I mean, movies like "Megan", or you know, "Smile", right? Horror is a kind of interesting sort of place to look for innovation, I guess, and risk.

Ben Fritz ’99 Yes, yeah that's a great point Brandy, I haven't talked about this. The only genre of film, besides you know big franchises, that still works in theaters is horror. And it's interesting, a few years ago I would've said horror and comedy, 'cause you like to be in a crowd to watch comedies, but somehow people don't care about going to theaters for comedies anymore either. They're happy to watch those at home. But horror, obviously horror is really fun in the dark. It's really fun with a crowd that gets scared together and screams together, and that has sustained itself, and you see lots of horror movies still doing well, and that's good at least, even though it's only one other genre.

Brandy Monk-Payton ’07 Yeah, we have a few more minutes, so if you have any more questions, please feel free to put them in the Q&A. Another question, "Will re-releases in theaters like 'Titanic' be an increasing trend as original box office declines? Or are the studios too locked into keeping the big movies of prior years on streaming?"

Ben Fritz ’99 No, but there will be some re-releases, that's interesting, and the reason is, sometimes some of these movie theaters, especially one with a lot of screens, now that there's fewer films being released, there's some weeks where they're like, they just need content. They need something to throw up on the screen. I mean there are some, you know, it used to be there were four or five or six new movies coming out every week. There was enough to fill those multiplexes, no problem. Now there's not. There are some weeks, you know, especially in like the winter, when there's one new movie, that's it. So they need more stuff to put up. They need re-releases. Sometimes they do these live events, they'll show like a sporting event, or an opera or something. There needs to be stuff to put up. So, and I don't think the studios are hurt by, it doesn't hurt the studios at all to re-release "Titanic" or "Avatar" or whatever. If whatever else, if there's an audience for it, I mean it's not gonna draw a big audience, but something to put on a screen, and it's another one way to make a little bit of money. So yeah, we'll see some of those. And if you're the kinda person who likes to go see them, that is a cool opportunity.

Brandy Monk-Payton ’07 Great, Julia Berkman asks, "Do you think small, intimate films like "After Sun" will ever have a chance of a best picture or best director nomination?"

Ben Fritz ’99  don't see why not. I think "After Sun" has an acting nomination at least, and there are, you know, there are movies being nominated like that, you know, gross very little money, like "The Banshees of Inisherin" and "The Fabelmans". So small films can do well. I mean, "After Sun" is a very good movie, and it's kind of a shame that, you know, maybe that didn't get nominated for more. But yeah, there are small movies that, you know, kinda break through, at least in the sense of Oscar voters, and get attention. So I think that's always a possibility. You know, the problem is more the other way. Can the movies that a lot of people are seeing also, you know, also resonate with Oscar voters? And can they balance, right? So you don't want the Oscar voters, you don't want the Oscars to just reward what's popular. You want them to surface things that people may not have heard of, but yet you also don't want it to be this kind of exercise that's only for kind of, for elites who like to go to art house theaters, and for it to be irrelevant and 99% of the population. So that's sort of the balance the Oscars have to try and strike.

Brandy Monk-Payton ’07 Great, Steve Smith asked, "I totally get the idea of movies as cultural events. I don't think we'll ever see something like that again in our fractured, bowling alone at home culture. Do you think there is a way for the industry to artificially create that kind of cultural event? What can the industry do in that regard?"

Ben Fritz ’99 That's a good question. I do think, and I actually have said this, I do think the Oscar, Hollywood needs to do a lot more to try to create, instead of being like, "Okay, we're Warner Bros competing with NBC Universal, competing with Netflix," you know, if they care about film and they care about, you know, movies mattering, they need to do more to make movies matter, especially to younger people. And how can, you know, come together as an industry to kind of advertise the importance of film? You know, I actually was at this event a few years ago at the Academy that was to talk to some of the people running the Academy who, you know, members I should say, about what can they do to sort of make the Oscars more relevant? And I went, you know, my big argument was, instead of being less about the rules of the Oscars, being like, what about things like, you know, taking all the best picture nominees on tours of colleges, or having free, you know, free, let students get in all for free one weekend. Or you know, do some, you know, an advertising campaign for theaters, or you know, have events, have people at the Oscars talking about how important theaters are. I don't know, something like that. They need to do more to advertise, and give you know, discounts and promotions and whatever to make people care about theaters, and care about movies as events, right? They need to build up the movie, and they can't just rely on the fact that, you know, "Oh, people love movies, people love theaters," 'cause it's not true anymore. And I think it would be great if the industry put more effort into advertising how great going to movies together can be, and how important it is to do that and not just watch everything on your tablet. So I don't know what the most successful, you know, marketing and promotion would be, but it would be great if the industry did something.

Brandy Monk-Payton ’07 That's a really creative idea. Like I never thought about that kind of marketing. And I think, you know, in large part it, yeah it is young people. But I also think, you know, since the #oscarssowhite, right? There has been a kind of question around the legitimation, right, of the Oscars. And so David Fuentes asked, "Do the industry changes you've described affect studio campaigns for Oscar nominations, and what is your take on the Andrea Riseborough best actress nomination controversy?" 'Cause I think that also sort of, you know, plays into it, right? Like how do we sort of, you know, see the Oscars as a, you know, transparent organization that will, you know, yeah.

Ben Fritz ’99 Yes, it's a very interesting question to me. I actually was part of a reporting team at the "LA Times" that found out, we got the name, for the first time got the names of every member of the Academy and we reported on what, you know, on gender and racial diversity for the first time. This was like a decade ago, you know, and it was appalling then, and it was the first time people knew about it. So you know, the Academy's always been very non-transparent. And part of it is these for-your-consideration campaigns, like the questioner mentioned. And we are seeing basically less money being spent on them than there used to be, because the studios don't care as much about winning Oscars as they used to. There's still some for sure, but it's definitely less than I remember seeing. When I worked at "Variety" in the 2000s, I mean, every winter the paper would suddenly get twice as big, 'cause it was just full of ads for every, and even if they had no chance of winning, you know, they would just spend millions anyway to keep their talent satisfied, and seem like they were trying. And you know, Andrea Riseborough was, for people who don't know, was you know, she's in this very, she was nominated for best actress in this extremely obscure film, I can't remember the name of it now, sorry, that nobody saw and there was no advertising for it. And it was all via social media that she was pushed. And on the one hand, maybe that's cool, because you know, you don't want it to just be whoever's spending the most money on ads in the trades to get nominated, to win the nomination. On the other hand, for this movie that has grossed like $100,000, and for it all to happen via social media, people are questioning, "Well is this, did people even really see this film that they nominated her for?" I think you're gonna see kind of more weird things like that happen. Weird in the sense of surprising and hard to explain, now that sort of the pop culture universe is fracturing so much, and we don't, we're not all seeing the same things. We don't sort of know what the best contenders are. You know, there's no agreement on what the best movies of the year are. Some people don't care about them. You're gonna see weird stuff like that happening.

Brandy Monk-Payton ’07 Great, well I think we're at the end. Thank you everyone for joining us and putting your questions in. There were way too many questions, but you know, thank you so much Ben for joining us. We'll be watching the Oscars.

Ben Fritz ’99 Thank you very much Brandy, this was fun.

Brandy Monk-Payton ’07 Thank you.

Ben Fritz ’99 Thanks everyone.