Don’t let the record-breaking numbers fool you: Hollywood is NOT in a good place right now. Oh, sure, if you’re a blockbuster-style, $200 million film dripping with special effects, 3-D or hot stars like Robert Downey Jr., you’ll do fine. Those movies are making a killing. Avatar has out-grossed The Dark Knight worldwide in just less than three weeks, and with its miniscule 3% and 9% drop-offs over the last two weekends, it is showing no signs of slowing down any time soon, possibly even threatening Cameron’s old Titanic record (don’t count on that yet, though.) Making things more interesting is the fact that December pushed the box office total over the top, surpassing $10.5 billion in 2009.
But don’t pop the corks yet, because a close examination of those numbers shows that while the overall totals were incredible last year, $7.1 billion of that went to the top 10 movies alone. Of 292 theatrically released and tracked films, 282 of them had to split $3.4 billion; 62 of those films made less than $1 million each – which includes a number of the films you’ll be hearing about in the Best Documentary Oscar category. In fact, we have to get 134 movies into the list to movie 156 before we break $10 million. In 2008, 198 movies made $10 million or more; in 2007, 196 movies did; and in 2006, 193 movies did it. In fact, in order to find a year anywhere near as low, we have to go back to 2001.
So what’s the big deal about that? Independent films, that's what. Even a $1-2 million acquisition will cost $10 million or more once you factor in print and advertising promotions. With fewer movies taking a bigger piece of the larger pie, it's hard enough to convince studios to diversify with cutting-edge films from new voices or those sitting outside the system. But when you can’t even see many, if any, success stories, it becomes even harder. It used to be that if you worked for a distributor and came back from a festival like Sundance without scoring some gem, you risked losing your job. Nowadays, no one is buying. Festivals are overflowing with the unpurchased -- and that especially goes for larger independent productions.
What does it say about the industry when a film like Solomon Kane sits on a shelf? Lacking a U.S. distributor, this fantasy film (adapted from the work of Conan the Barbarian writer Robert E. Howard) was budgeted in the District 9 range, sports a PG-13 rating (meaning dads can take their sons and teens can get in) and it has been getting rave reviews from people outside the fanbase (I’ve seen it and I love the hell out of it.) But no one will pick it up. They’re afraid it looks too much like Van Helsing and feel it needs a bigger star to get it in front of audiences. Looking at this year’s box office, I can’t exactly say they’re wrong (but I really, really want them to be.)
Or what of Tim Allen’s independently produced and distributed film Crazy on the Outside, coming out this week? Tim Allen, standup comedian, sitcom star and blockbuster headliner, directing an all-star cast in a PG-13 comedy. Seriously, nobody wanted that? I know that Allen has been on the outs with the critically minded for quite some time, but my parents will drop 20 bucks to see him yuk it up again. And they’re not alone. Disney couldn’t scrape together some coin for one of their big moneymakers? Nope. Not in this economy. Not when investor cash is harder to come by than chopsticks at a BBQ joint.
And this might just be the beginning. With the success of District 9 and director Neill Blomkamp’s insistence that he is going to stay in that price range for his upcoming films, there’s a good chance that what the studios begin to think of low budget as the $30 Million they spend on their own films (rather than spending the money to pick up independent films), and that they begin focusing the rest on tentpole pictures like Avatar, Transformers and Sherlock Holmes.